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As the world was consumed this week by a nail-biting wait for results in the United States presidential election, the Diet witnessed its own showdown between Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and opposition lawmakers, with the two sides clashing primarily over his rejection of Science Council of Japan nominees.

The parliamentary battleground has consisted of budget committee debates in both houses of the Diet, following three days of questioning by representatives last week.

In the four-day debate sessions attended by the prime minister and Cabinet ministers, the opposition, as expected, continued to slam the administration over its refusal to admit six scholars to the advisory body.

The exchanges marked the first time Suga's endurance has been tested by criticism in a primary legislative debate session since he became the nation's leader.

Swatting away jeers unperturbed, he drew on his aptitude for accountability, credibility and clarity. Disclosing new information such as when he learned of the plan to exclude the six, the prime minister left the opposition facing the risk of being portrayed as obsessive for their maintained onslaught over that topic alone.

Here are some highlights from the four days of deliberations this week by the Lower House and Upper House budget committees.

Science Council controversy

Lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) did question Suga about the academic council, but they focused on the party’s efforts to reform the body rather than the rejection of the six scholars, who had expressed criticism of policies under the previous LDP administration. The council is independent of the government but is under the prime minister’s jurisdiction.

During an exchange with LDP lawmaker Taku Otsuka on Monday, Suga said he had been “concerned” with the membership selection process while he was chief Cabinet secretary, particularly that individuals were not able to become members unless they had a connection with an existing member who could act as a sponsor.

The prime minister added that he was torn about breaking with the precedent of unilaterally approving all of the recommended new members, but felt the decision was warranted since the organization receives ¥1 billion from the public purse as an annual budget.

“In that sense, (the system) is exclusionary, and is as though the right (of membership) is vested,” he said.

While questions from opposition lawmakers did yield some new information, Suga persistently declined to provide one critical piece of information: his rationale for rejecting the nominations of the six scholars.

Lawmakers from outside the ruling party condemned Suga for reading aloud from prepared manuscripts with melodic intonation that occasionally left the two sides talking at cross-purposes. And Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato intervened on behalf of Suga at times even though the lawmakers asking questions had specifically sought responses from the prime minister himself.

Masato Imai of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), the largest opposition party, scrutinized Suga’s insistence on the need for reform of the council’s membership demographics. The prime minister has said that a shakeup of the council's membership is justified to bring in younger scholars and broaden representation to include a wider range of universities.

But by not appointing the six scholars, Imai argued that Suga had undermined his own effort to diversify the body's composition, pointing out that one of those rejected is 53 years old and that only 11 among the council's membership of 105 are age 52 or younger. Another rejected scholar would have been the only one of the 105 members to hail from Jikei University School of Medicine.

In a response to Upper House lawmaker Renho of the CDP, Kato acknowledged the existence of documentation describing exchanges between the Cabinet Office and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita over the exclusion of the six scholars, but declined to submit it before the Diet for public view. The opposition is pressing the administration to enable Sugita to testify in the Diet.

Foreign policy

The U.S. presidential election was certainly a topic of interest in this week's Diet debates. On Thursday, Suga reiterated that the Japan-U.S. alliance was the cornerstone of the nation’s diplomacy and national security.

“Regardless of the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, there’s not going to be any change in our position that we will continue to work closely (with the U.S.),” he said.

On North Korea, responding to a question from CDP lawmaker Katsuya Okada, Suga affirmed that he would maintain Japan’s existing position of seeking the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of Pyongyang's nuclear program.

Shinkun Haku, also of the CDP, asked Suga whether he would invite North Koren leader Kim Jong Un to the Tokyo Olympic Games, scheduled for July next year, and hold a meeting with him. Suga declined to comment but said he thought the games would be “a good opportunity” to hold such talks. Seiko Hashimoto, the minister overseeing the Olympics, clarified that the central government would not extend invitations as the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government had been designated to perform that task.

Strike capability

Okada also quizzed Suga about his administration’s view on a statement made in September by then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hinting that the government would review its policy on acquiring the ability to strike enemy bases, such as missile launch sites.

The statement noted growing national security threats and was put together after the government ditched a plan to deploy the land-based, U.S.-developed Aegis Ashore missile defense system.

Suga responded that the statement has not undergone Cabinet approval, and so was essentially not binding for subsequent Cabinets to follow, but that discussions about strike capability would continue.

Jiji Press reported earlier this week that the government had abandoned its goal of reaching a conclusion on whether or not to acquire strike capability by the end of the year, out of consideration to LDP’s junior coalition partner Komeito, citing unnamed government sources.

CDP’s Haku argued that maintaining strike capability would enable pre-emptive strikes in violation of the Constitution. Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi shot back that the government was considering a new direction in Japan’s national security based on strictly defensive capabilities, upholding the Constitution and international law while making no changes to fundamental defense cooperation between Japan and the U.S.

Energy mix

In Wednesday’s Lower House committee meeting, CDP leader Yukio Edano questioned the prime minister about nuclear energy.

Asked whether he was thinking about building new power plants, Suga said that was implausible “at this point.” He declined to elaborate further, even though Edano pressed him about whether such a move would be a possibility in the future.

For Japan to achieve the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, Suga had previously indicated that nuclear power would be needed for a steady energy supply even though the country has committed to lessening its dependence on it.

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