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Japan opposition parties slam gov't over press official's resignation, call her 'victim'

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato speaks about the resignation of Cabinet Public Relations Secretary Makiko Yamada during the House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting on March 1, 2021. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is seen to the right. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- Japan's opposition camp is slamming Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's government following the resignation of a Cabinet press official over lavish dinners she was treated to by a broadcasting company Suga's son works for.

    Critics referred to her as "a victim" of what they say is an iron-fisted approach within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that has persisted since the previous administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and that this culture forced the senior bureaucrat to attend dinner functions.

    "Many bureaucrats at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications have been subject to disciplinary actions over a scandal involving the prime minister's eldest son," said Yukio Edano, leader of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), during the House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting on March 1.

    He criticized the wining and dining functions that senior communications bureaucrats were treated to by Prime Minister Suga's son and others at broadcasting firm Tohokushinsha Film Corp., which led to the resignation of Cabinet Public Relations Secretary Makiko Yamada. Edano also questioned Suga's governance over bureaucrats, saying that his administration has led to the "corruption of bureaucrats' morals by forcing a politics of currying favor (with the administration)."

    The CDP's Kazunori Yamanoi, who followed Edano in the committee's question-and-answer session, grilled the government, stating, "The prime minister demotes bureaucrats who disagree with him. He abuses the system of the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs. Press secretary Yamada could not say no to dinner with (the prime minister's) son even if she wanted to."

    In response, Prime Minister Suga told the session, "I have never made personnel appointments based on my feelings. It's all about policies." When asked why Tohokushinsha kept treating Yamada and other communications bureaucrats to dinners, Suga merely explained, "To be honest, I'm not sure about the causality (between the dinner meetings and the fact that his son works for the firm)."

    Opposition parties suspect the practice of the prime minister's office taking control under both the Suga and Abe administrations has infested ministries and agencies, leading to bureaucrats currying favor with the administration. To name a few examples, school operator Moritomo Gakuen, where Abe's wife Akie served as honorary principal, was able to purchase state-owned property at a heavily discounted price, and Kake Educational Institution, whose chairman was Abe's "best friend," got approval to open up Japan's first veterinary department in 52 years. These involved works by bureaucrats at each of their ministries.

    In a suspected bribery case involving former farm minister Takamori Yoshikawa, a senior official at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries was asked why they accepted wining and dining treatment from major egg producer Akita Foods Co. They were quoted as saying, "It was hard for me to leave the dinners, as I was invited by Mr. Yoshikawa." Yoshikawa is known to be a close ally of Prime Minister Suga.

    A senior CDP figure pointed out that the government's executive branch is "distorted" because bureaucrats cannot voice opinions in opposition to the prime minister's office out of fear.

    The government is hastily trying to draw line under the wining and dining scandals by punishing officials at both the communications and agriculture ministries. But the CDP's Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama remains unconvinced, commenting that the government's move to "make bureaucrats a scapegoat and pin all the responsibility on them" would lower their morale.

    Akira Koike, the second-in-command of the Japanese Communist Party, also pressured Prime Minister Suga, telling reporters on March 1, "If the government was to act like the issues at hand have been resolved by handing down punitive measures, they will develop into questions over the prime minister's accountability."

    Meanwhile, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai offered few words on Yamada's resignation, telling reporters on March 1, "It was her decision, likely after careful consideration. Nothing more and nothing less."

    Following a spate of resignations by ruling party legislators and bureaucrats, an increased sense of crisis is descending within the LDP. One veteran LDP lawmaker said self-deprecatingly to the Mainichi Shimbun, "Who'll quit next week?"

    (Japanese original by Kenta Miyahara and Minami Nomaguchi, Political News Department)

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