Because of the way mainstream media work in Japan, significant stories sometimes seem to emerge from nowhere. The news that the Cabinet had rejected six nominees for the Science Council of Japan was actually broken by Akahata, the press organ of the Japanese Communist Party. As a perennial left-wing opposition force that no one expects to ever lead the government, the Japanese Communist Party is, by definition, against whoever is in power, and so its reporting is, also by definition, politically motivated. Akahata looks for something that places the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in a bad light, and the mainstream press, which doesn’t always have the wherewithal to notice the importance of such matters, is happy to tag along.

So Akahata provided the initial narrative, which went like this: The new administration of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ignored a rubber stamp process in order to prevent a handful of scholars from joining an independent policy advisory group, supposedly because the six candidates publicly opposed a government bill several years ago. By refusing to appoint these scholars for political reasons, the government is violating their academic freedom. The mainstream press has characterized the controversy as being mainly about legality, in that there is nothing in the law that allows the Cabinet to reject these nominees. However, Suga insists he is taking the verb “appoint” — ninmei suru — literally. He just refuses to explain his reasons fully, thus adding fuel to the fire.

Economist Noriko Hama, a professor at Doshisha University and pundit who tends to rub conservatives the wrong way, wrote in a Tokyo Shimbun column that Suga has decided to “rudely” wander into the world of academia like someone who doesn’t remove their shoes after entering a house uninvited. Hama explains the scandal in a derisive tone, her main point being that the council is supposed to be independent of the government, even if it’s administered by the Cabinet, and the government’s unilateral decision to reject six nominees is clearly political and arguably illegal.

Hama also describes reform minister Taro Kono’s targeting of the council for overhaul a diversion, and, though she concedes that the council may be ripe for renovation, having the government carry out the changes is like inviting the fox to redesign the henhouse. She concludes her essay with what appears to be a subtle dig: Surely, she writes, some readers won’t agree with her take, but, unlike Suga, she welcomes opposing views.

Reform was discussed more evenhandedly by University of Tokyo professor Yuki Honda in an Oct. 17 interview with Mainichi Shimbun. As a member of the council until September, Honda explains that the selection process is long and she had a hand in choosing the current batch of 105 candidates. The nominations are based on academic standards with which the administration has no experience.

The six rejected scholars were chosen to fill specific advisory roles, which means the government decided to disregard those roles, and that would be bad for the public. One of the justifications Suga mentioned for his action is that the council is funded by taxpayers, so there should be some sort of government oversight. But whose interest is this oversight serving?

Downplayed in the controversy is the real purpose of the council and how it has historically carried out that purpose. Ostensibly, it advises the government on relevant policy, and was created shortly after World War II as a body totally independent from the government with the idea that academia before and during the war was in thrall to the military. So, in a sense, the council’s provenance was a refutation of militarism and government interference.

However, according to a recent article in Diamond Online, the government has often compromised academic freedoms, even before the current controversy, for its own ends. In 2015, the administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe started paying subsidies to researchers that carried out research to bolster national security, and, by 2017, these subsidies had increased to ¥11 billion.

At the same time, government funding for other university research was drying up. The council showed concern for these parallel trends but didn’t do anything about it. The council is represented by a wide cross-section of schools, but it’s dominated by the national universities. Almost every president of the council has been a graduate of the University of Tokyo.

In this regard, it bears noting that the Akahata article that started it all came about only after a Japanese Communist Party lawmaker read a social media post by one of the rejected candidates, Takaaki Matsumiya, who didn’t bring his story to a reporter, but simply wrote about the rejection on his Facebook page. The Science Council apparently didn’t think it was worth mentioning, and the mass media wasn’t paying attention because they didn’t see anything unusual. It didn’t become an issue until after Akahata made it into one.

In an article for the weekly magazine Aera, honorary professor Tatsuru Uchida of Kobe College pointed out that a revision to the Basic Education Law in 2014 removed the self-governing authority of university professors, and yet there was no collective response from those affected. The last word in the matter may be from controversial scholar Tamotsu Sugano, who for a while was camped out in front of the Prime Minister’s Office on a hunger strike to protest the rejection of the six nominees.

In an on-site interview with the web news program Democracy Times, he mentioned the Takigawa Incident of 1933, in which a Kyoto Imperial University professor was denounced by the education ministry for his views and the entire Faculty of Law resigned in protest at the height of the militarist era. Although individual scholars have protested the Cabinet move, the council has reacted meekly and the government knew it would. Some would argue that this doesn’t necessarily make the Science Council de facto civil servants, but, according to Sugano, that’s how most of the members view themselves.

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