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Japanese gov't accused of lack of transparency over pearl industry reform hearings

Eiji Hara is seen at the National Diet in this file photo taken on July 25, 2017. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government has been withholding information on two hearings on a regulatory reform proposal made by a pearl sales company linked to a member of a working group on national strategic special zones apparently at the request of the proponent.

The government usually releases specific regulatory reform proposals and the dates of hearings of their proponents and government offices concerned on the website of the prime minister's office to ensure transparency of the process of screening such proposals.

The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also approved government answers to questions from a legislator over the matter, stating a false number of hearings held on such proposals.

According to those familiar with the matter, a pearl sales company based in the Kanto region in eastern Japan proposed sometime around June 2015 that the culturing of pearls be deregulated under the Fishery Act.

At the time, Eiji Hara, a private-sector member of the working group, introduced a company then called Tokku Business Consulting (Special zone business consulting) to the proponent. The company, with which Hara had collaborative relations, compiled proposal documents for the pearl sales company and Hara frequently gave advice to the proponent.

The proposed deregulation was implemented under revisions to the Fishery Act in December 2018 after deliberations at the working group.

The working group held a hearing of the president of the pearl sales company sometime around October 2015, and also another hearing of officials of the Fisheries Agency over their views on the proposal.

In some cases, the government withholds the names of those who make regulatory reform proposals and what was discussed during hearings at the requests of the proponents as exceptions. However, the government has not even disclosed the fact that the hearings of the pearl company president and the Fisheries Agency took place.

Answers to written questions from Tomoko Tamura, a Japanese Communist Party member of the House of Councillors, about the details of hearings held by the working group did not include the two hearings on the proposed deregulation of the cultured pearl industry. The answers were approved by the Abe Cabinet on June 27, 2017 and Dec. 15 that year.

In an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, the president of the pearl sales company admitted that he asked that the fact that the hearing took place be withheld. "I asked Mr. Hara and others not to disclose the hearings for fear that the closed cultured pearl industry could react sharply to our proposal," the president said.

The consulting company cites the proposal on pearl industry deregulation as its past achievements in its corporate information and states that it had attended a hearing by the working group.

However, the Cabinet Office, which serves as the secretariat of the working group, stated in writing that it was unable to confirm that the group had held the hearings in question.

When contacted by the Mainichi Shimbun, the Fisheries Agency asked the national daily to contact the Cabinet Office instead.

However, the summary of the minutes of a Sept. 7, 2016 meeting on deregulation of the cultured pearl industry, which was carried on the prime minister's website, shows that Hironobu Naka, then head of the Fisheries Agency's Policy Planning Division, clearly stated that the hearing was held. "Various things were pointed out at the October (2015) hearing," he was quoted as telling the meeting.

The summary also quotes Yutaka Fujiwara, a then senior official of the Office for Promotion of Regional Revitalization at the Cabinet Office, as telling the meeting that "a long time has passed since (the last hearing) was held in October last year (2015)."

The basic principles of the national strategic special zone system state that "relevant information must be thoroughly disclosed and transparency must be ensured."

Prime Minister Abe has told the Diet, "The working group holds transparent and fair discussions."

(Japanese original by Shusaku Sugimoto and Taiji Mukohata, Special Reports Department)

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