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Editorial: Japan's comms ministry can't sweep nepotism suspicions under rug with transfers

Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Ryota Takeda has announced personnel transfers of two of four senior ministry officials following the discovery they were treated to dinners by representatives of broadcasting and production firm Tohokushinsha Film Corp., including Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's eldest son. The two officials have been assigned to the minister's secretariat, and the ministry will consider disciplinary action against the pair and other senior bureaucrats after an investigation by the National Public Service Ethics Board.

    However, suspicions that the company was given special treatment remain almost completely unanswered. We cannot accept the ministry's attempt to bring the curtain down on the scandal by replacing a handful of senior officials.

    The Suga Cabinet's response has been slow on this issue, too. In reality, it's scrambling to follow up on news reports about the scandal.

    Yoshinori Akimoto, director general of the ministry's information and communications bureau, who has now been assigned to the minister's secretariat, admitted at an early stage that he was being treated to dinners. Initially he told the Diet he couldn't remember whether talks about Tohokushinsha's broadcasting business came up during the dinners, but during a Feb. 19 Diet session he suddenly admitted that the business was indeed among the topics of conversation.

    Akimoto's about-face came after weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun's website published a recording of conversation taken at a dinner meeting on Dec. 10, 2020. Akimoto likely thought he could no longer keep lying. In the voice data, Suga's son was recorded repeating business-related terms such as one meaning satellite broadcasting services.

    Has the government forgotten the severe backlash it faced after related officials made false statements at Diet sessions over favoritism scandals involving school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution, as well as on state-funded cherry blossom-viewing parties that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is suspected of exploiting for his political gain? The latest scandal has devolved into a similar scenario.

    At the core of the scandal are suspicions that Tohokushinsha abused the position of the prime minister's son in the firm to advance the approval and certification processes regarding its satellite broadcasting and communications satellite projects.

    What cannot be overlooked in the recording is the fact that Akimoto referred to Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Fumiaki Kobayashi, who served as parliamentary vice-minister of communications, saying, "He needs to face a crushing defeat somewhere."

    His choice of words, unbecoming of a bureaucrat, is shocking. Kobayashi apparently had been pushing for another company to join the satellite broadcasting market. What kind of decisions has the communications ministry made regarding its approval and certification of satellite broadcasting and communications satellite businesses? Akimoto's comment has only raised more suspicions.

    The issue at hand is not just a violation of the National Public Service Ethics Code by accepting wining and dining opportunities from interested parties. Was there an act of surmising the prime minister's intentions? Or was there room for distortion of administrative decisions? These are the questions being asked regarding this scandal.

    Prime Minister Suga has a responsibility to order the communications ministry to conduct a strict investigation and clarify the suspicions.

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