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Japan PM 'not obliged' to appoint recommended science council members: Cabinet Office

The buildings housing the Cabinet Office and Cabinet Secretariat are seen in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi/Takenori Noguchi)

TOKYO -- The Cabinet Office has released a document it created in 2018 that states the prime minister is not obliged to appoint Science Council of Japan members as recommended by the academic organization, seemingly contradicting a 1983 Diet statement by then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone that the central government's acts of appointment are "a formality."

    The Cabinet Office released the in-house document on Oct. 6, which compiles its understanding on the appointment of council members by the prime minister, following revelations that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga refused to appoint six researchers recommended as new members to the council. The Science Council of Japan is a representative organization of the country's scientific community and makes policy recommendations while maintaining independence from the central government.

    Some have pointed out that Nakasone's response in the Diet regarding the appointments can be interpreted to mean that the council effectively has the power to appoint its own members. But the 2018 document does not directly refer to his statement.

    Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato explained at an Oct. 6 news conference that the document was not immediately disclosed in 2018 because it was not meant to reinterpret the 1983 remark. Opposition parties, however, are criticizing the government for what they say is an arbitrary change to its interpretation.

    The document in question was presented by the Cabinet Office on Oct. 6 during a joint hearing session hosted by the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition parties. It was compiled by the office's Secretariat of the Science Council of Japan on Nov. 13, 2018.

    Article 17 of the Act on Science Council of Japan says the council selects member candidates and recommends them to the prime minister, and as stipulated under Article 7 the prime minister appoints council members based on the group's recommendations. The 2018 document states that the appointment by the prime minister "must be done for those recommended."

    Meanwhile, the document points out that, based on Article 65 of the Japanese Constitution which states, "Executive power shall be vested in the Cabinet," and the supreme law's Article 72 that says that the prime minister "exercises control and supervision over various administrative branches," the prime minister is "allowed to exercise their supervisory power to some extent," and therefore they are not obliged to appoint new members as recommended by the science council.

    The document also cited Article 15 of the Constitution, which says, "The people have the inalienable right to choose their public officials and to dismiss them," and stated that the appointment of new members must be something that the prime minister can be held accountable for by the people as well as the Diet.

    While the 2018 document noted that the prime minister needs to "fully respect recommendations from the Science Council of Japan" when appointing new members, it also said the act of requesting recommendations for more candidates than the number of members needed, and selecting new members from among them, "shall not be denied."

    According to a former senior member of the council, when the group was in the process of shortlisting new members in 2017 as the terms of 105 members, or half of the council, were to expire, the prime minister's office requested that the organization present more than 105 candidates. In addition to the 105 nominated at the science council's selection committee, Takashi Onishi, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo who headed the council at the time, named about 110 people when reporting to the prime minister's office. At that time in October 2017, however, the original 105 were appointed by then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

    According to sources close to the prime minister's office, the office also requested the science council submit a list of more than 105 candidates in the latest appointment. The 2018 document was likely used as a way to support the argument for the requested recommendation method. This time, however, the science council did not comply and presented a list of exactly 105 people, six of whom were not appointed.

    Meanwhile, the Cabinet Office's Science Council of Japan secretariat director-general Hitoshi Fukui told a House of Representatives Cabinet Committee session on the morning of Oct. 7 that the 2018 document was not created at the request of the prime minister's office. When asked why its existence was not disclosed in 2018, Fukui said, "The compilation work was started for the purpose of learning as we proceeded through work on the assignment. It was not my understanding that the document was something to be disclosed."

    (Japanese original by Kei Sato and Shuhei Endo, Political News Department; Ayumu Iwasaki, Science & Environment News Department)

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