Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Thursday that he has instructed his eldest son on the phone to cooperate with a possible investigation into a wining-and-dining scandal involving the 39-year-old.
The scandal was initially reported by weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun. The report said that four senior Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry officials, including Yasuhiko Taniwaki, vice minister for policy coordination, were separately wined and dined by Suga's son Seigo, who works for Tokyo-based satellite broadcast-related firm Tohokushinsha Film Corp.
The dinners took place at sushi and other restaurants between October and December last year and the bureaucrats received taxi tickets from the son, possibly in violation of the National Public Service Ethics Law, according to the report.
The scandal is likely to deal another blow to the Suga administration after controversial visits late at night to hostess bars in Tokyo's upscale Ginza district by some ruling bloc members last month during the government-declared ongoing state of emergency over the coronavirus crisis. The opposition camp is set to grill the administration over the fresh scandal.
The ministry has authority to give satellite television broadcasting licenses. The son served as secretary to Suga when he was internal affairs and communications minister.
The behavior by the four ministry officials may have amounted to acts of receiving entertainment, or money or goods from interested parties, which are banned by ethics rules under the National Public Service Ethics Law, sources familiar with the situation said.
The matter is under investigation, the top government spokesman said Thursday.
"I understand the details are being investigated at the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry as it closely works with the National Personnel Authority," Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said at a regular news conference.
"If there were indeed acts that violated the National Public Service Ethics Law, that could damage people's trust in national public servants, and the Justice Ministry will take measures accordingly," Kato added.
Speaking at a meeting of the budget committee of the House of Representatives, Suga said, "I want the ministry to respond in accordance with rules, so as not to cause suspicions among the people."
On his relationship with Tohokushinsha, Suga said he has received support from its president, who is the founder of the company, because they are both from the northeastern prefecture of Akita.
Suga said he told his eldest son over the phone to cooperate if an investigation is started over the wining-and-dining case.
Still, the prime minister said that the son is a "completely separate individual" and that Seigo "has his own family and privacy," suggesting that the scandal should not be up for deliberations at the Diet.
At the committee meeting, Yoshinori Akimoto, head of the ministry's Information and Communications Bureau, admitted that he has had dinner with the son of the prime minister.
Akimoto said he did not initially pay the cost of the dinner as he had thought that there was no participant with interests in matters related to the duties of the ministry. Akimoto said he later paid part of the bill.
Tohokushinsha said in a statement that it will respond appropriately after looking into the matter.
The government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party hope to escape damage from the entertainment scandal, claiming that it involved Suga's son and the ministry. The issue "won't affect the prime minister," a senior LDP official said.
Meanwhile, a Lower House member of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan said at the budget committee meeting that the scandal involves the Suga administration.
Kazuo Shii, head of the Japanese Communist Party said at a press conference, "I want the prime minister to give an explanation about whether the entertainment case had led the broadcasting administration to have been distorted."
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