Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga faces a widening scandal over revelations that his eldest son — Seigo, an executive at a company involved in satellite broadcasting — had wined and dined bureaucrats at the communications ministry. So far, the ministry has discovered that 13 officials were wined and dined 39 times by representatives of the broadcasting company, including 21 times when Seigo Suga was present.

On Monday, a ministry investigation revealed that in addition to four previously named senior bureaucrats, another eight — including the Cabinet’s current public relations secretary — accepted hospitality from Seigo Suga. These revelations have again raised questions about influence peddling at the highest levels of government and are becoming a major political problem for the prime minister, even though he insists he had no knowledge of his son’s activities.

How did the scandal break?

Early this month, the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun published a report that Seigo Suga, who turns 40 this year, wined and dined four high-level bureaucrats at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and gave them food and other small gifts such as taxi vouchers and chocolates. The officials included Yoshinori Akimoto, director general of the Information and Communications Bureau, and Hironobu Yumoto, deputy director of the same body, as well as Yasuhiko Taniwaki and Mabito Yoshida, vice ministers for policy coordination.

The younger Suga works for a subsidiary of Tohokushinsha Film Corp., which is involved with satellite broadcasting services, and the communication ministry issues broadcast licenses to businesses involved in such services. Under the National Public Service Ethics Law, government officials are banned from being entertained by or receiving gifts from people with interests in affairs related to the officials' duties. Seigo Suga’s hospitality raises questions about whether the bureaucrats violated the law, as well as whether they met with him because his father is the prime minister.

How did Yoshihide Suga and the ministry react?

During questions at the Diet on Feb. 4, the prime minister said he did not know anything about his son’s wining and dining of the bureaucrats. In what appeared to be impromptu, emotional remarks, he also said that Seigo Suga was his own man, and that he didn’t keep track of his son's activities.

The ministry announced it was conducting an internal investigation into the affair. In Feb. 17 Diet testimony, Akimoto said the dinners were gatherings of people from the Tohoku region. He repeated earlier claims that he could not recall whether conversations about broadcast satellite services had come up during the conversations.

But Akimoto was forced to change his account just two days later, after Shukan Bunshun’s release of an audio tape of one conversation with Seigo Suga. He then admitted having discussed broadcast satellite services with the prime minister's son, and also said he recognized the younger Suga as someone with business interests connected to the ministry. Taniwaki and Yoshida, however, told the Diet on Monday that they did not recognize Seigo Suga as a person of interest related to their official duties.

In an unusual move, the ministry transferred Akimoto and Yumoto out of their jobs last week. Communications minister Ryota Takeda told the Diet the transfers were unrelated to the scandal and insisted the dinners with Seigo had had no effect on the ministry’s administration of satellite broadcast licensing.

What is Seigo Suga's connection to the ministry?

Seigo Suga was previously employed as a secretary to his father, who served as internal affairs and communications minister in 2006 and 2007, while Seigo Suga dealt with ministry officials on a daily basis. Later, Seigo Suga joined Tohokushinsha and was promoted to a senior leadership position in the subsidiary involved with satellite broadcasting.

Yoshinori Akimoto (left), then-director general of the information and communications bureau at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, walks past communications minister Ryota Takeda to speak at a Lower House Budget Committee session in Tokyo on Friday. | KYODO
Yoshinori Akimoto (left), then-director general of the information and communications bureau at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, walks past communications minister Ryota Takeda to speak at a Lower House Budget Committee session in Tokyo on Friday. | KYODO

On Friday, the ministry's own probe revealed that Seigo Suga dined with the four bureaucrats, a couple of whom he first met in 2006 when his father was the minister, a total of 12 times between 2016 and 2020. On Monday, the scandal widened further as the ministry said another nine bureaucrats had been entertained by Seigo Suga.

All told, 13 people met Seigo Suga at least 39 times. The bureaucrats involved are expected to be formally reprimanded Wednesday. While the original four received taxi vouchers in addition to the meals, the ministry said Monday that the others did not receive any gifts. Seigo Suga has denied doing anything inappropriate, the ministry says.

What has been the political fallout for the prime minister?

A poll by Kyodo News taken Feb. 6 and 7, immediately after the first report in Shukan Bunshun, showed that 62% of respondents were not satisfied with Yoshihide Suga’s response to the scandal. The prime minister’s overall support rate was 38.8%, the first time it had dropped under 40% in a Kyodo poll.

The opposition continues to hammer away at the issue, and calls are growing for Seigo Suga himself to testify at the Diet. So far, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition has rejected those calls.

During Monday’s Diet session, the prime minister apologized for his son’s involvement in officials' ethical code violations. But one of the 13 named Monday as a recipient of Seigo Suga’s hospitality is Makiko Yamada, the Cabinet public relations’ secretary and a former senior communications ministry official. She met with Seigo Suga in November 2019 while still with the ministry, and he picked up her ¥74,000 tab during a dinner.

Given Yamada's closeness to the prime minister, her involvement means questions about Yoshihide Suga’s knowledge of what his son was doing are likely to grow.

In addition, losing top officials such as Taniwaki, who was highly supportive of Suga’s efforts to cut mobile phone fees, could prove damaging to carrying out what is a key Suga goal — especially since Taniwaki had been scheduled for promotion to a top-level position this summer.

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