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Top labor ministry official says he wasn't told of statistics problem at time of new role

Yasuyuki Onishi, former director-general for statistics and information policy at the labor ministry, answers questions about statistical irregularities in the Monthly Labor Survey, during a House of Representatives Budget Committee session on Feb. 12, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- A senior labor ministry official formerly in charge of statistics policy said he was not aware of statistics collection irregularities in the ministry's Monthly Labor Survey when he took over the position from his predecessor in July last year.

Yasuyuki Onishi, former director-general for statistics and information policy, made the testimony during his appearance at a House of Representatives Budget Committee session as an unsworn witness on Feb. 12, his second summoning since Feb. 8.

Onishi quoted his predecessor as telling him in July 2018, "There was a change in the survey method, but things have been settled now," suggesting that he was not informed of the improper data collection method at the time.

In the following month, the Statistics Commission of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications pointed out that some of the results in the Monthly Labor Survey were unnatural. The internal affairs ministry oversees the nation's government statistical surveys.

But Onishi told the budget panel session, "At that point, I wasn't aware of (the irregularities) as I was not briefed about issues like a sampling survey" that was in use in place of an all-out survey.

The labor ministry illicitly changed the survey method for the labor statistics and covered only about one-third of employers in Tokyo with 500 or more workers even though it was supposed to collect data from all companies of that size. This resulted in tens of millions of people being shortchanged a total of tens of billions of yen on unemployment and other work-related benefits over a 15-year period beginning 2004.

In December 2018, Onishi reported the ministry's improper statistical work to senior labor ministry officials, but it wasn't until Jan. 8 this year that the ministry publicly announced the irregular practice. Deputy vice minister Yumiko Jozuka explained that as of December, "The details and effects of the case were not yet clear." Onishi was dismissed from his post over the scandal on Feb. 1.

The labor ministry is also under fire for switching from a door-to-door survey for the Basic Survey on Wage Structure to a mail questionnaire without permission. Regarding the issue, Onishi told the budget panel session, "I was briefed about it in late December. I didn't think a mail survey itself was something bad at the time," indicating that he had no intention to cover up the malpractice. His comment came in response to a question by Junya Ogawa, a legislator belonging to a parliamentary alliance led by the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

Meanwhile, Katsuya Okada of the same alliance demanded Prime Minister Shinzo Abe retract his remark made at a convention of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Feb. 10, in which Abe described the administration led by the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) as "nightmarish." Abe dismissed the request, saying, "At that time, the employment rate among young people was terrible. I will not retract my statement." Okada once led the DPJ.

With regard to records of past bilateral meetings between Prime Minister Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin over peace treaty negotiations between Tokyo and Moscow, Abe told the panel session, "The notes from the meetings have been retained. They are certainly official documents."

Those records, the prime minister said, will be kept secret for an as-yet undetermined number of years. "Conversations between just the two of us should basically be kept secret," he said.

(Japanese original by Yusuke Matsukura, Political News Department)

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