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Editorial: Political intervention in Science Council of Japan cannot be overlooked

Japan recently witnessed a serious case of political intervention that could threaten academic freedom in this country.

    In selecting new members for the Science Council of Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga decided not to appoint six of the 105 candidates the council had recommended. Looking back over the decades since the council's founding in 1949, it is an extremely rare state of affairs.

    The six scholars were all experts in the humanities and social sciences. What they had in common was that they had been critical of controversial security legislation and organized crime law revisions that established charges for conspiracy -- both key bills passed under the administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

    If it turns out that the prime minister's office had the intention of eliminating scholars who didn't match its inclinations based on their past statements, then it could find itself in violation of Article 23 of the Constitution, which states, "Academic freedom is guaranteed." The prime minister should reverse his move.

    The Science Council of Japan is formed by scientists who have produced outstanding research results and made other achievements. It is a body representing some 870,000 researchers across the country, leading to its nickname: "scholars' Diet." While its activities are publicly funded, its independence is stipulated under the Act on the Science Council of Japan.

    Under current rules, the council picks candidates to replace those whose terms have ended, and the prime minister appoints new members based on those endorsements. In the past, the government has generally accepted the recommendations as-is.

    The system is based on respect for academic freedom and autonomy. In 1983, the method of picking members changed from an election system to a recommendation system. At the time, the independence of the council was questioned in the Diet, but the minister in charge responded, "The act of appointment is merely a formality, and people who are recommended are appointed without change."

    This time, however, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato stated, "When in a position of making appointments, it is only natural to scrutinize them." This statement is at odds with past Diet statements. If the prime minister's office has changed its interpretation of the law, then it should provide an account in the Diet of how this happened.

    The science council has decided to submit a renewed request seeking the appointment of the rejected six candidates, while demanding a reason for why they were not appointed as recommended. The government must give a proper reply.

    During World War II, many scientists were made to cooperate with the government. It is widely known that military officials ordered Nobel laureate Hideki Yukawa and other physicists to attempt to develop an atomic bomb. When advancing thought control, scientists who posed an obstacle were expelled. The Takigawa Incident, in which the government clamped down on a law professor at Kyoto Imperial University, and an incident where a constitutional scholar who promoted the theory of the emperor as an organ of the government was accused of lese-majeste are typical examples of this.

    The science council was created based on reflection on such incidents. Experts from various fields had gathered, transcending their positions, to provide counsel and other information to the government.

    Japanese physicist Shinichiro Tomonaga, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics along with two other scientists in 1965, released a statement in 1967, when he was president of the Science Council of Japan, that the council would never be involved in military research. Fifty years later, in 2017, the council again expressed a cautious stance toward partaking in research that could be diverted to military use.

    The government has set the promotion of science and technology as a pillar of Japan's growth strategy. In line with this, the government's Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency established a system to support robotic technology research and other fields that could have military uses. But partially because of the statement by the science council, there have not been as many applications to take part in this research as the agency had hoped.

    We cannot deny the possibility that in the future, the government may try to use its power in personnel appointments to open the way to intervention in the natural sciences. There are even fears that the appointment of Japan's national university presidents could be affected.

    The administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe strengthened its control over government bureaucrats through the unified management of senior official appointments at central government ministries and agencies via the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs. Those who complied with the wishes of the administration were given important posts, while those who expressed exceptions were given the cold shoulder. Amid this atmosphere, officials shrunk back, and the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats became warped. And in the center of this was Suga, who was chief Cabinet secretary at the time.

    A typical example of this is the director-generalship of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau. When preparing to change the interpretation of the Constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense, the bureau broke with the convention of promoting an internal member to the position of director-general, and instead installed a figure from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who was in favor of the change.

    The Abe administration also changed its interpretation of the law to extend the tenure of the superintending prosecutor at the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office, who was viewed as being "close to the prime minister's office."

    The underlying trait that has continued from the former administration is the tendency of its leaders to think, "We have been chosen through an election." This leads to the idea that if a party wins in an election that it has been given carte blanche. But authority is something that should be implemented with controls.

    Prime Minister Suga has stated that bureaucrats who oppose policies decided by the government will be transferred. It is trying to advance its policies by putting pliable people into key posts.

    The adverse effects of strong-arm tactics have already come to light, and so if the prime minister's office is trying to extend that to the scientific world, it cannot be overlooked.

    Science is the foundation of a cultured nation. And science develops in a free environment that does not expel diverging opinions or objections. If such an environment were lost, Japan would have no future.

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