Opposition lawmakers continued to grill labor ministry officials over a wage data manipulation scandal Friday at the Lower House budget committee, questioning the political neutrality of what the government says is a special independent investigation committee of outside experts.

After the wage data scandal emerged last month, the labor ministry launched the committee under chair Yoshio Higuchi, the president of the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training — a think tank affiliated with the ministry.

The committee has conducted interviews with 37 officials and former officials at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare who are suspected of being involved in the scandal. But the ministry later revealed that it was ministry officials, not the committee’s outside experts, who conducted interviews with 25 of the 37 officials.

The committee members directly interviewed the remaining 12 officials. But Yumiko Jozuka, a senior official who heads the ministry’s secretariat, and another senior ministry official attended seven of the 12 sessions, which critics and opposition lawmakers say must have put tacit pressure on the interviewees not to say about anything that could cause further difficulties for the ministry.

An interim report released by the special committee late last month concluded that it could not find “any evidence of an intentional cover-up” of the alleged data manipulation by ministry officials.

The committee instead blamed lax protocols and a lack of professionalism among ministry officials, but stopped short of concluding that the data was mishandled intentionally.

During Friday’s session, Hiroshi Ogushi of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) pointed out that Higuchi approved the interviews by ministry officials in advance, casting doubts on the political neutrality of the committee itself.

“It is the chairman who approved (interviews) by fellow officials. Why on earth did the third-party committee approve this?” Ogushi asked.

Higuchi declined to answer that question during the session, however, saying the committee had just relaunched its investigation and that it is still in the processes of re-examining the facts. He also insisted he was invited to the session as the head of the think tank, not as the representative of the special investigation committee on that day.

“I’d like to refrain from speaking as the chairman of the committee,” Higuchi said, adding he would never compromise his integrity to unfairly favor the ministry.

Labor minister Takumi Nemoto, a long-time friend of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, defended Higuchi, calling him a “fair and sincere expert in statistics with great achievements and insight.”

Opposition lawmakers also called for a retraction of the report released by the committee in late January.

“The report should be retracted, and a fresh probe should start in its place,” said CDP lawmaker Seiji Osaka.

“It’s not acceptable that the interviews were conducted by ministry officials,” he added.

Last month the ministry admitted that from January last year it had secretly revised the statistical method used for the monthly wage survey, which led to sudden spikes in the year-on-year growth rate of the monthly average wage throughout 2018.

Economists say the increases would not force any drastic changes in their view of the overall economic conditions. But opposition lawmakers have suspected officials might have concealed the revision because raising wage levels is considered a key prerequisite for the success of the prime minister’s Abenomics policy program.

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