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Opposition, gov't clash over whether PM's office had hand in labor stats survey method

Leading members of the House of Representatives Budget Committee read the minutes of a labor ministry study panel on a review of a labor statistics data collection method, on Feb. 15, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- The opposition camp and the government clashed over whether the prime minister's office used undue influence in a review of data collection methods for the Monthly Labor Survey at a House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting Feb. 15.

The confrontation follows the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry's disclosure the same day of the minutes of meetings held by a panel of experts from July to September 2015 to review data collection methods for the survey. A faulty method used for surveying firms in Tokyo resulted in work-related benefit payment shortfalls to tens of millions of recipients, totaling tens of billions of yen, over a 15-year period starting in 2004.

The 2015 meeting minutes show that the panel chairman said in August that the survey method should not be altered. However, a high-ranking labor ministry bureaucrat declared in a meeting the following month that the ministry would consider a change. The panel never held another meeting on the issue, and a new data collection method was instituted in January 2018.

"Wage fluctuations, particularly that of real wages, in the Monthly Labor Survey, are drawing particular attention as they are viewed as achievements of Abenomics," then labor ministry Statistics and Information Department head Takeshi Anezaki said at the first meeting of a Monthly Labor Survey study panel on June 3, 2015. The comment was in reference to the economic policy mix promoted by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Two months earlier, Anezaki and other high-ranking bureaucrats at the ministry were asked by Motoya Nakae, then executive secretary to the prime minister, to deliberate the matter with experts. This request has led the opposition camp to suspect that the prime minister's office was involved in the data collection method review.

At the time, Nakae had apparently called into question a gap in data created by entirely replacing survey sample companies employing 30 to 499 workers -- which account for nearly half of the some 30,000 businesses covered -- every two to three years. Since the replacement made it impossible to compare the outcome of a survey with past results based on a different sample, the ministry needed to adjust past data.

After adjusting data following the switch-out of sample firms in January 2015, wage data in some months between 2012 and 2014 showed negative growth. The revised data was announced on April 3, 2015. Nakae had been briefed on the matter by the ministry three days earlier and apparently told ministry officials that they "should listen to opinions from experts."

To maintain data continuity, subjects of public surveys are generally replaced gradually or are never changed. It is rare for all subjects in a certain category to be entirely replaced as they were in the Monthly Labor Survey, according to a senior official of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, which oversees government statistics.

Opposition parties are grilling the government over whether the prime minister's office wanted to "put the fruits of Abenomics on display," and pressured the ministry to set up the study panel.

Experts who sat on the panel are divided over this view, however.

"There had been opinions within the government and among economists from before that the gap (generated by replacing survey sample firms) should be dealt with. The bottom line was that the ministry was deliberating the issue because many people were calling for a review," said Masahiro Abe, a professor at Chuo University who chaired the study panel.

"I recall hearing that the prime minister's office was angry because past figures turned negative following revisions," commented another former panel member.

Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute who also sat on the panel, is bewildered by the opposition camp's attack on the government. "It's not wrong to point out that it's unreasonable that past data changes whenever employers subject to the survey are replaced."

The study panel held six meetings until September 2015, after which discussions were terminated without reaching a conclusion. The data collection method was subsequently replaced by one in which only some of the sampled firms were switched out.

Opposition parties are critical of the change in the data collection method, claiming it is the result of surmising the intentions of a prime minister's office seeking to ensure rises in wage figures. However, former panel members interviewed by the Mainichi Shimbun all share the view that it is impossible to manipulate statistical results by changing data collection methods.

Professor Abe said the labor ministry did not point the panel's discussions in a certain direction. Nakae also denied that he pressured the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to manipulate statistics.

"I had no intention of having the ministry use an inappropriate statistical method to produce data favorable to the government," he told the Feb. 15 House of Representatives Budget Committee session.

(Japanese original by Shunsuke Kamiashi and Akira Okubo, City News Department; Wataru Okubo, Business News Department; and Tetsuya Kageyama, Political News Department)

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