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Uproar as Fuji TV airs false comment over former Japan science council members' pension

The headquarters of Fuji Television Network Inc. is seen in the Daiba district of Tokyo's Minato Ward. (Mainichi/Maki Mochizuki)

TOKYO -- A false remark made by a senior commentator for Fuji Television Network Inc. in connection with the government's rejection to appoint six of the 105 scholars nominated to the Science Council of Japan has caused a storm of criticism, after the comment critical of the academic body went viral online.

    Fumio Hirai, a senior commentator for the major broadcaster, said during the daytime program "Viking More" aired on Oct. 5, "After working for (the Science Council of Japan) for six years, they become members of the Japan Academy and can receive 2.5 million yen (about $24,000) in annual pension payments until they die. That's taxpayers' money. That's the rule."

    However, the Japan Academy and other sources said there was no such rule for former Science Council of Japan members joining the Japan Academy, and his comment turned out to be false.

    After Hirai's remark sparked a strong backlash, an emcee for the show corrected the comment the following day, saying at the end of the same program, "His comment gave the false impression that all members of the Science Council of Japan become Japan Academy members and can receive 2.5 million yen in annual pension," and apologized.

    When the Mainichi Shimbun questioned Fuji TV over whether it was going to ask Hirai about his intention behind the comment in question, a public relations department official just referred to the correction during the Oct. 6 show and said, "We will strengthen our checking systems and strive to prevent a recurrence."

    Hirai's controversial comment came during his criticism of the Science Council of Japan being run on public money. "Academic bodies in Europe and North America are all run privately. It's only in Japan that the council uses taxpayers' money," he said. "I think the council should be privatized and make proposals while paying their own membership fees."

    A building housing the Science Council of Japan is seen in Tokyo's Minato Ward in this Oct. 1, 2020 photo. (Mainichi/Ayumu Iwasaki)

    Following the show, supporters of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took to Twitter, quoting Hirai's comments one after another with the apparent aim of attacking the Science Council of Japan. Takashi Nagao, a House of Representatives member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, even tweeted, "My senior alumnus Hirai from Ritsumeikan University! You dared to say what you said on the program! Thank you. We will properly rectify the way of these vested interests."

    Officials of the Science Council of Japan and the Japan Academy were appalled by these developments.

    An official at the administrative office of the Japan Academy said that Hirai's comment was "false."

    The Science Council of Japan and the Japan Academy are completely separate organizations, with the former being an organ under the Cabinet overseen by the prime minister and the latter overseen by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

    The Science Council of Japan was established in 1949 and comprises scholars and researchers nominated to its membership and makes recommendations to the government from scientific points of view. The tenure for the 210 members is set at six years, with no reappointments.

    The Japan Academy, meanwhile, was established in 1879 and is defined under the Japan Academy Act as "an organization to give preferential treatment to scientists with distinguished academic achievements and carry out projects necessary to contribute to the development of academia." Its 150 members have lifetime tenure. The academy's membership has had prominent historic figures including Yukichi Fukuzawa, who served as its first chairman, Hideyo Noguchi, Shibasaburo Kitasato, Inazo Nitobe, Kitaro Nishida, as well as a number of Nobel laureates.

    A joint opposition party hearing over the personnel affairs of the Science Council of Japan is held in the Diet, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Oct. 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

    Although members of the Japan Academy can receive 2.5 million yen in annual pension during their lifetime, this can hardly be described as a "vested interest" considering their academic achievements.

    Regarding the relationship between the Science Council of Japan membership and that of the Japan Academy, the aforementioned official at the latter organization flatly denied what Hirai said, and explained, "There are no rules stipulating that Science Council of Japan members and former members become members of the Japan Academy."

    Currently, 130 of the 150 seats on the Japan Academy are occupied, but not all vacancies are to be filled up, which means that hurdles are high to join the prestigious body.

    "Among the Japan Academy members, there is only one sitting member of the Science Council of Japan, which is its president, Takaaki Kajita. There are many people who join the Japan Academy without having been a member of the Science Council of Japan," the Japan Academy official said.

    With regard to Hirai's criticism of the use of taxpayers' money for the Science Council of Japan, the Mainichi Shimbun examined the council's investigative reports on major scientific bodies overseas compiled between 2000 and 2002 and found that tax money is injected into almost all of the surveyed overseas academies, including the United States' National Academy of Sciences, Britain's Royal Society, the French Academy of Sciences, the Union of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, with the percentage of tax funds in their operating costs ranging from 50% to 100%.

    (Japanese original by Riki Yoshii, Integrated Digital News Center)

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