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Fukushima faces major consumer affairs challenge

by Alex Martin

Mizuho Fukushima, the new state minister in charge of consumer affairs and reversing the low birthrate, said her job is to prioritize policies that directly affect the public’s livelihood and to make sure the new Consumer Affairs Agency is effective.

Fukushima, who also heads the Social Democratic Party, said efficient handling of the the information flowing into the agency will be key for its smooth operation.

“The greatest problem has been the vertically divided administrative system that prevented information from being centralized,” she said during a recent group interview.

“I believe many consumer-related accidents could have been prevented if information could have been analyzed and addressed closer to the ground.”

Consumer-related affairs were previously handled by different ministries, agencies and departments within ministries depending on the issue. The result was an often sluggish and inconsistent response by the government, leading to harsh public criticism.

Fukushima said she intends to host special committees to discuss how information scattered between ministries can be effectively unified within the agency.

The consumer agency has already been subject to criticism for taking up residence in a building that costs approximately ¥800 million a year to rent and the appointment of a former bureaucrat as its director general.

During a news conference preceding the group interview, Fukushima made clear her intention of not renewing the building’s contract next April.

“A relocation can’t be helped. We will do everything we can to reduce the public economic burden,” she said.

Regarding the appointment of Shuichi Uchida, former vice minister of the Cabinet Office, as the agency’s director general, Fukushima said that as long as the job gets done she believes individual backgrounds are not important.

The DPJ pledged during the recent election to wrest power from the bureaucrats, and many party members opposed Uchida’s appointment.

“What’s important is whether consumer administration can be implemented from the public’s standpoint,” Fukushima said, adding she will discuss such personnel issues with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

Fukushima also spoke about her position regarding the DPJ’s campaign pledge to dole out a monthly ¥26,000 to households per child.

The promise has faced some turbulence, with the SDP and Kokumin Shinto suggesting that households making more than ¥8 million a year be excluded.

The DPJ has proposed that the cash handouts — which will continue to be distributed until a child finishes junior high school — be sent to all households regardless of income.

Bowing to pressure, Fukushima recently softened her stance, telling reporters last Tuesday that an income limit may not be necessary if it complicates the process and even increases administrative fees.

Fukushima said during the interview that the income cap was initially proposed so any money saved could be used to improve infrastructure by building more day care and after-school centers.

“Setting an income limit is not the main issue here — what we need is a comprehensive measure to support families with children,” she said.

“From personal experience, I know how difficult it is to find day care and after-school centers for kids. Improving such infrastructure is necessary.”