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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga denied Friday that an ethics scandal involving a senior press official had anything to do with his decision not to hold a news conference that day when announcing the partial lifting of the coronavirus emergency.

Cabinet Public Relations Secretary Makiko Yamada, who moderates Suga’s news conferences, came under fire after she was found to have been treated to a luxurious dinner in 2019 by the now-prime minister’s eldest son.

While Suga skipped holding a formal news conference, as is usually done when declaring or lifting an emergency, he spoke to the media and took questions from reporters.

Cabinet Public Relations Secretary Makiko Yamada returns to her seat after answering questions during a House of Representatives committee meeting on Thursday. | KYODO
Cabinet Public Relations Secretary Makiko Yamada returns to her seat after answering questions during a House of Representatives committee meeting on Thursday. | KYODO

His decision fanned speculation he is attempting to shield Yamada. But Suga, speaking to reporters in the evening, called the issue “absolutely irrelevant,” and said Yamada is actually addressing the issue in the Diet.

Suga also said he is “not aware” of the punishment given to his son Seigo. Tohokushinsha Film Corp., the operator of a satellite broadcasting business where Seigo Suga works, has subjected him to disciplinary action and dismissed him from his post as head of “hobby and entertainment community operations” at the firm’s media business division.

Suga said a news conference should be held after assessing the coronavirus situation and deciding whether to lift the state of emergency in the remaining prefectures on its March 7 scheduled end date.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said during his news conference that Japan has “yet to reach that stage.”

On Thursday, Yamada, a former senior bureaucrat at the communications ministry, who became Japan’s first female Cabinet public relations secretary under Suga and the first female executive secretary for a prime minister under his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, faced calls from the opposition to resign but told the Diet she plans to stay on when called to provide witness testimony.

Suga announced Friday that Japan will lift its virus emergency for six prefectures at the end of the month ahead of schedule, while maintaining the measure for the Tokyo metropolitan area.

Kiyomi Tsujimoto of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan expressed doubt about the government’s decision for Suga not to hold a news conference, saying, “Normally, this is the time to (do so).”

“The government must be trying to hide Yamada,” she said.

Major media organizations asked that Suga speak with thee press on Friday, saying various issues need to be explained, including decisions surrounding the state of emergency and ethics code violations by senior bureaucrats.

Eleven officials of the communications ministry have been punished after being wined and dined by officials of Tohokushinsha.

But Yamada, who was a vice minister for policy coordination at the communications ministry when she dined with Tohokushinsha officials in 2019, escaped a reprimand as she has already left the ministry and the ethics code does not cover an individual granted special status to serve in a government post.

Tohokushinsha announced Friday the resignation of its president, Kiyotaka Ninomiya. Suga’s son has also resigned as director of Igo & Shogi Channel Inc., a subsidiary of the broadcasting company.

“A lack in compliance awareness has led to serious consequences involving disciplinary action among communications ministry employees,” according to Tohokushinsha, which did not reveal details of the penalty against Seigo Suga.

The National Public Service Ethics Law prohibits central government officials from receiving favors from stakeholders. Yamada has offered to forfeit 60% of her salary in her current role for one month, approximately ¥700,000 ($6,600), over the scandal.

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