National

Gas industry donations of ¥39 million call Japan government panel's neutrality into question

Kyodo

Three members of the government’s advisory panel on city gas market deregulation repeatedly received donations from a gas industry organization, documents obtained by Kyodo News showed Monday.

While the recipients, who are all public university professors, say the Japan Gas Association’s donations, which totaled ¥39 million since 2010, did not influence the outcome of the panel meetings, the government did not know about the money given to them as research funding.

Panel member Hirotaka Yamauchi, a professor at the Hitotsubashi University Business School, heads the advisory panel.

According to the documents — obtained through a freedom of information request to his university — Yamauchi accepted a total of ¥14 million before and after joining the panel.

“My understanding is that we are not required to disclose such donations,” Yamauchi said.

There are no regulations banning such donations to government panel members, but concerns have repeatedly been raised about the neutrality of advisory panels, including one on telecommunication service charges. Kyodo News has recently learned that several members of the panel discussing a review of mobile phone charges had received donations from major telecommunication carriers.

Some experts say that such donations from private companies and organizations are important sources of research funding, as the government has been cutting research grants to public universities.

One member of a government panel said that levels of corporate donations are seen by some as a key indicator of how well a researcher’s achievements are recognized.

Takao Kashiwagi, a professor emeritus at Tokyo Institute of Technology, and Tsutomu Oyama, a professor at Yokohama National University, also received donations from the gas industry group, which counts companies such as Tokyo Gas Co. and Osaka Gas Co. among its members.

Kashiwagi said the funding did not influence views he expressed at the meetings of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry panel. Oyama could not be reached for comment.

A Japan Gas Association official said the donations were part of “wide-ranging activities to financially support studies contributing to the gas industry’s development.”

The municipal gas market was fully liberalized in 2017 to enable consumers to choose from a wider range of suppliers.

But the government’s committee promoting regulatory reforms in various areas has criticized the city gas liberalization, saying it did little to spur greater competition among suppliers or bring benefits to consumers.

“It is better to have academic experts discuss regulations, and donation itself should not be criticized,” said Kazuo Ishikawa, a former industry ministry official who heads an independent think tank, the Institute for Industrial Growth and Social Security Policy. “But key members of panels will not escape criticism about their neutrality if they receive donations from industry organizations.”