Amid mounting criticism over the government's refusal to appoint six scholars as new members of the Science Council of Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga once again failed to provide concrete reasons for the move during an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun on Oct. 9.
Suga merely reiterated his position that his decision came from the view that the council "should engage in comprehensive and panoramic activities, namely well-balanced activities with broader perspectives, and should be an entity that can earn public understanding as an organization into which the state budget is injected."
His reasoning is far too abstract for people to understand why he rejected the six researchers among 105 candidates nominated to the council.
The law under which the Science Council of Japan was established stipulates that its members "shall be appointed by the prime minister based on recommendations by the council."
When this stipulation was being deliberated in the Diet in 1983, then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone said that the appointment of council members by the government was "merely a formality." He therefore stated that "academic freedom and independence (of the council) will be guaranteed."
The government has argued that its latest position is not inconsistent with past statements in the Diet, and that it has not changed its interpretation of the law.
The government brought up in-house documents that the Cabinet Office apparently created in 2018. The documents state that the prime minister "cannot be regarded as being obliged" to appoint members endorsed by the science council. The papers note that the prime minister can exercise its supervisory authority to a certain extent through personnel affairs.
The documents base their claims on Article 15 of the Japanese Constitution, which stipulate: "The people have the inalienable right to choose their public officials and to dismiss them." However, this provision lays out general principles. The government's explanation that the prime minister has personnel and supervisory authority over the Science Council of Japan, a highly independent scientific body and whose members are public servants in the special service, is unconvincing.
If the kind of reasoning that the government provided in the latest case can go unchallenged, it could affect personnel affairs of other highly independent administrative bodies including the Public Prosecutors Office and the Board of Audit of Japan.
Suga is attempting to centralize power in the prime minister's office by exercising his authority over personnel issues, and to use it as a driving force in propelling policy measures. Yet if he fails to take fair and transparent procedures, then such endeavors could give rise to authoritarian rule.
Some within the administration are calling for a review to the status of the Science Council of Japan. They are, however, switching the focus of argument by pointing the finger at the way the council stands, without answering the questions regarding the prime minister's refusal to appoint the recommended academics to the council.
Administrative reform minister Taro Kono has suggested that the Science Council of Japan will be made subject to the government's administrative reform efforts. It is obvious that the government is aiming to apply pressure on the council under the name of administrative revamp.
Prime Minister Suga ought to provide reasons that are rational and can convince the public regarding his rejection of the six scholars. If he is unable to do that, he should retract the decision.