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Editorial: Ethics scandal in Japan's comms ministry highlights need to reform cozy ties

New suspicions that officials from Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications were treated to expensive meals by figures in the communications industry have come to light.

    It has emerged that officials including Yasuhiko Taniwaki, vice minister for policy coordination at the ministry, dined with figures including the president of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. (NTT) with some meal expenses covered.

    NTT's business and other projects are certified by the communications minister, and it is possible ministry officials violated the National Public Service Ethics Code, which prohibits officials from receiving entertainment from interested parties. The ministry has launched an investigation into the allegations.

    Taniwaki admitted to attending three dinners from 2018. Eiji Makiguchi, director-general of the ministry's global strategy bureau, admitted during a ministry probe that he had attended one in June last year.

    In an initial report published by Japanese weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun, the total cost of the three dinners Taniwaki attended is said to have exceeded 580,000 yen (about $5,370). The dinner in June last year, meanwhile, cost 330,000 yen (approximately $3,000), and the attendees reportedly included former Cabinet Public Relations Secretary Makiko Yamada, who also served as vice minister for policy coordination at the time.

    It earlier emerged that Taniwaki and Yamada were entertained by executives of broadcasting company Tohokushinsha Film Corp. including Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's eldest son.

    In the Diet, Taniwaki stated that he had paid the dinner amount presented by NTT, and said that he did not consider his actions a violation of the ethics code. As a result, he said he had testified that he did not take part in dinners with communications and broadcasting firms besides Tohokushinsha that were in violation of the ethics code.

    However, when having meals with interested parties, even when the cost is split up between attendees, if the expenses required for the official's own eating and drinking exceed 10,000 yen (about $93), the official must notify their ethics supervisory officer in advance. Taniwaki did not provide such advance notice. We must question whether he understands the purport of the ethics code.

    Taniwaki is known to be on close terms with the prime minister, who has strong influence within the communications ministry. He played a key role in the Suga administration's major political policy of lowering mobile phone fees.

    When Suga was serving as chief Cabinet secretary, he stated that mobile phone fees could be lowered by 40%, putting pressure on providers to reduce their fees. This is said to have coincided with the period when the wining and dining commenced. So can we say there was no connection?

    After the inauguration of the Suga administration, NTT announced that it would turn NTT Docomo Inc. into a wholly owned subsidiary, and replaced its president. It indicated that it would comply with the move to lower mobile phone fees.

    This is no longer simply an ethics issue involving bureaucrats. The structure of cozy ties between bureaucrats and business leaders must be reformed.

    The prime minister, however, has merely stated, "I think the communications ministry will conduct a thorough investigation." He should work to thoroughly unravel the suspicions and clear away public distrust in politics.

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