The Lower House began debating the fiscal 2021 budget late this week, but the focus has been on the mounting pressure on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on issues ranging from a potential ethics violation involving his son to a sexist remark by the Tokyo Organising Committee chair.
In the Lower House Budget Committee, the main battleground between the administration and opposition parties, opposition lawmakers attempted to shake the prime minister with a series of attacks, but he kept his ground, even though he at times raised his voice.
Although the events unfolding this week are not directly tied to the prime minister himself, they could further inflame mistrust toward the administration — which is already nearing its boiling point over Suga's coronavirus response.
The biggest clash between Suga and opposition lawmakers revolved around an allegation in a weekly tabloid magazine that Seigo Suga, the prime minister’s eldest son, who works at a satellite broadcast company, gave four Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications officials gifts and taxi vouchers after treating them at a high-end restaurant in Tokyo on at least four occasions last year. Accepting the gifts could be a violation of the ethics code for public servants.
The opposition camp suspects that an inappropriate relationship could have influenced the ministry’s licensing decisions, especially because of the company’s ties to the prime minister’s son, undermining the fairness of them.
On Friday, Suga told the committee he had talked to his son and urged him to cooperate with any inquiry.
At the same time, he has tried to distance himself from the report. In response to heated questioning from Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Takahiro Kuroiwa, Suga on Thursday said he had not been aware of the facts reported in the magazine and the matter should be handled “based on rules after confirming the facts.”
One of the implicated officials, Yoshinori Akimoto, said to Kuroiwa that he had dined with Suga’s son. The official told the committee session he did not pay for his meal because he was not aware of a potential conflict of interest.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said in a morning briefing Friday that the communications ministry will primarily conduct a probe while coordinating with the National Public Service Ethics Board. He elaborated on neither the start of the investigation nor its conclusion, other than saying it will be done as soon as possible, as the ministry is consulting with the ethics board on how it needs to be carried out.
Trying to put distance between himself and his son, Suga noted his son is an adult and a private citizen. The prime minister said he had not confirmed whether photographs published in the magazine were of his son or not. In the photos, the eyes of the person reported to be Suga's son were covered over with a black line for privacy purposes.
“Truth be told, this is not something I should be responding to at a place like this because the matter involves his and his family’s honor and privacy,” Suga said.
Kuroiwa also broached the subject of nepotism — Suga had at one point made Seigo Suga parliamentary secretary when he was an internal affairs minister between 2006 and 2007. The prime minister shot back forcefully and argued that the appointment complied with proper procedures.
“I don’t meet him on a regular basis because he is something like 40 years old,” Suga said. “Isn’t it unfair that you’re connecting the dots to him? He’s a completely different person, so I hope you understand that.”
Meanwhile, sexist remarks by Olympics organizing chief Yoshiro Mori, who said that women talk too much at meetings, was another topic during the debates. Suga initially declined to weigh in on the matter, prompting jeers from opposition lawmakers. But then he reversed course and criticized it when pressed further by the CDP’s Makiko Kikuta.
“The remark should not have been said,” Suga said, but he declined to comment when Kikuta admonished the prime minister to encourage Mori to step down.
On Friday, Suga said he had instructed Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto to talk to Mori and convey that gender equality is part of the International Olympic Committee’s mission and the upcoming games should be a reflection of that.
Mori apologized to Hashimoto and pledged to support the games until the end, essentially denying that he would be stepping down, the prime minister said.
On the coronavirus, Suga on Thursday acknowledged the government’s failure over its contact-tracing app, which did not notify Android smartphone users when they were in close contact with individuals infected with COVID-19 for four months.
“I think the matter was indeed handled poorly and we want to make sure that this never happens again,” Suga said in response to a question from Koichiro Genba, a CDP lawmaker.
Foreign policy also was a subject in Thursday's debates. Hakubun Shimomura, the Liberal Democratic Party policy council chairperson, raised the rising military influence of China, expressing concern about a recently implemented law that would enable its coast guard to use weapons in waters the country claims.
Japan is worried that China will use the powers granted by the legislation in the East China Sea, where the contested Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu in China, are located, thereby endangering Japanese vessels.
“(The Chinese actions) are deeply regrettable,” said Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi. “The Senkaku Islands are our territory both historically and under international law. There’s no territorial dispute that needs to be discussed.”
Genba, the opposition lawmaker and a former foreign minister, asked Motegi whether Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty would be applicable to the contiguous zone of the Senkaku islets, to which Motegi did not directly answer. In a phone call between Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden last week, the two leaders confirmed the security pact covers the islands.
The CDP lawmaker went on to press Suga on whether Japan still intends to invite Chinese leader Xi Jinping as a state guest, a plan proposed by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when he was in power that has been pushed back indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic. Suga rejected the idea of scheduling an invitation at this point, citing the virus crisis.
He then reiterated a past statement that the bilateral relationship is important for the region and the world, and that “Japan will continue to press the Chinese side to take action” on outstanding issues.
Describing Japan-U.S. ties, Suga underscored Tokyo’s commitment to strengthening ties with the new U.S. administration, stressing the importance of building a personal relationship with Biden and advancing the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy."
Genba suggested bringing Europe into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue framework, which is currently composed of four countries: Japan, the U.S., Australia and India. Motegi was open to the proposal and showed eagerness to advance international cooperation to build a “free and open order” from the East China Sea to the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific region.
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