In an interview with the press club that covers the Cabinet, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga touched on his refusal to appoint six academics as new members of the Science Council of Japan, but merely said, "The decision was made from a comprehensive, panoramic view of guaranteeing (the council's) activities." He did not go into further detail.
This will not help the government regain the trust of the Japanese public.
The six academics were nominated by the council as scholars "with superior research or other achievements." They had been critical of the moves made by the previous administration of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, such as the establishment of new security legislation and the passage of the anti-conspiracy bill. But Suga said that the criticism the scholars voiced toward such policies "had nothing to do" with his decision not to appoint them to the council. If that is the case, then the reason and criteria for being appointed to the council should be clearly explained.
The establishment law for the Science Council stipulates that the organization will carry out its duties independently. The reason the government has thus far appointed council member candidates whom the council has nominated was because interfering with the selection process would threaten the organization's independence. In 1983, then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone told the Diet that the appointment of members by the government was "merely a formality."
However, Prime Minister Suga posed the question, "I've been thinking about whether it is good to simply follow precedents." But a slogan to simply "break down the adherence to precedents" is not a good enough reason to overturn policy that past administrations have maintained.
Procedures to make it possible for the government to deny appointments were put into motion during the previous administration. Two years ago, the government put together the view that "We cannot go as far as to say that we have the duty to necessarily appoint (scholars) who are nominated." It was noted in an internal government document that the prime minister could exercise a certain level of supervisory power.
The Cabinet Legislation Bureau has explained that there has been no change in the government's interpretation of the law. Then how does it explain the inconsistency with the government's response in past Diet deliberations, during which former Prime Minister Nakasone called the government's appointment of scholars to the council as a "formality?"
Suga has given as reasons for the government's authority over the council's personnel affairs the fact that the government spends around 1 billion yen (approx. $9.5 million) annually on the council budget, and that the council's members become public servants in special positions. But the Science Council of Japan is different from government ministries and agencies. The issue of budget and public servant status, and that of the authority to appoint are two different things.
It is a basic tenet of academia to question common wisdom and stereotypes, and to maintain a critical eye.
While Prime Minister Suga says that the latest decision "has absolutely nothing to do with academic freedom," when the independence of the Science Council is threatened, it will lead to research that avoids criticizing the government's policies. Ultimately, it is a major problem that has the potential to cause academia to cower away from any critiques of authority.
Cabinet committee sessions will be held in both the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors on Oct. 7 and 8. The prime minister should attend both and offer an explanation on this situation.