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Attempts by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to rally support following his heavily criticized handling of the COVID-19 pandemic were put in jeopardy Monday by the resignation of a Cabinet official formerly at the communications ministry and now under fire for having violated ethics policy by dining with Suga’s son.

The meal presented a conflict of interest because Seigo Suga worked at broadcast satellite company Tohokushinsha Film Corp., and was therefore seen as a stakeholder in license authorization by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

Makiko Yamada, whose resignation from her role as Cabinet public relations secretary was approved Monday morning, had at the time been a vice minister for policy coordination at the ministry. She was one of 13 high-ranking ministry officials involved in the authorization of licenses for satellite companies who were treated to expensive dinners by executives at Tohokushinsha.

Although other internal officials were disciplined, Yamada’s resignation is seen as a personal blow to Suga. Impressed by her job performance while he was chief Cabinet secretary, he favored her to the extent that she was later promoted to the roles of executive secretary to the prime minister under Shinzo Abe and public relations secretary in Suga’s administration, becoming the first woman to assume each of the titles.

The controversy could prove a stumbling block for his administration. Its approval ratings had appeared to bottom out in multiple polls once the number of new novel coronavirus cases settled into a downward trend, with optimism rising over vaccines and after the government said last week it would lift a state of emergency, imposed over the pandemic, in six prefectures Monday.

A Nikkei daily/TV Tokyo poll released Sunday evening showed approval for the Suga Cabinet remained flat at 44% in February, up by 1 percentage point from January, while a Sankei daily/Fuji TV poll from Feb. 22 saw approval at 51.5%, a 0.8% point decrease from January.

Cabinet Public Relations Secretary Makiko Yamada answers questions at a Lower House Budget Committee meeting last week. | KYODO
Cabinet Public Relations Secretary Makiko Yamada answers questions at a Lower House Budget Committee meeting last week. | KYODO

The ethics violations at the communications ministry could blunt any momentum toward more favorable perceptions of the administration, at the same time as the window for scheduling an election narrows and remaining opportunities to boost Suga’s popularity seem scarce.

The scandal has worsened at a time when it is understood the prime minister was hoping to gradually loosen pandemic-related restrictions and shift public focus to economic recovery — with direct implications for support in the crucial period ahead of a Lower House general election that must be held by October.

“I feel deeply sorry for causing inconvenience to everyone, including lawmakers, with this resignation of a Cabinet public relations secretary in this very crucial period of Diet deliberations,” Suga said Monday evening. He told reporters the search for Yamada’s replacement was underway, and shot back at criticism that the resignation had come too late.

Katsunobu Kato, the top government spokesman, said in a Monday morning briefing that while Yamada had violated the National Public Service Ethics Code, the government was expecting her to continue serving as a public relations secretary, considering her career, and described her leaving as “very regrettable.”

“Although her resignation was due to health reasons, a series of cases at the communications ministry has caused the public to be doubtful over governance, which is something the government has to make sure won’t happen again,” the chief Cabinet secretary said.

Cabinet approval for Yamada’s departure came after she was admitted to a hospital Sunday evening. She saw her personal doctor that evening after feeling unwell, and her doctor prescribed a roughly two-week period of hospitalization, Kato told a meeting of the Lower House Budget Committee, during which it had been expected that she would be grilled Monday morning.

From the hospital where she was admitted, Yamada informed Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita on Sunday that she would not be able to carry out her duties, according to Kato.

“That evening, the deputy chief Cabinet secretary informed the prime minister and me about the matter,” he added. “The prime minister determined that he had no other choice but to accept it.”

Suga had thrown his support behind Yamada, even as uproar over the controversy had mounted.

The scandal initially broke with the disclosure by a weekly tabloid magazine early in February that Suga’s son had given four communications ministry bureaucrats gifts and taxi vouchers after treating them to meals at a high-end restaurant in Tokyo last year.

At first the prime minister highlighted the distance between him and his son, insisting Seigo Suga was an adult and a private citizen.

But then an internal probe by the ministry found last week that 12 of its officials, excluding Yamada, had been entertained by Tohokushinsha employees 38 times between July 2016 and December 2020. The total value of the gifts and entertainment added up to ¥534,000. Seven of the officials were punished with salary reductions for either one or three months.

Yamada was found to have been treated by the company once in 2019, to a meal that cost ¥74,203. As she had left the ministry in July 2020 she was no longer subject to its disciplinary procedures, but she voluntarily agreed to return 60% of her salary for one month.

Yamada did not intend to step down from her role, and on Wednesday Suga told reporters he had “high expectations for her as a female public relations secretary, so I hope she’ll keep her title.” Asked since about this comment, which some felt put emphasis on Yamada’s gender, Suga has said that he appointed her based on her long experience in government — and after taking into consideration what he described as women’s ability to pay attention to fine points, as well as the fact that few bureaucrats are women.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was dealt a blow with the resignation Monday of Makiko Yamada as Cabinet public relations secretary. | REUTERS
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was dealt a blow with the resignation Monday of Makiko Yamada as Cabinet public relations secretary. | REUTERS

In her testimony to the Lower House Budget Committee the following day, she denied that company executives had sought any favors and said she had not been aware that they were considered stakeholders, or that attending the dinner with them could get her into trouble.

Yamada apologized for her involvement, and expressed “profound regret for damaging the integrity of the civil service.”

Nevertheless, there were ongoing calls from opposition lawmakers for her to step down. Those calls intensified Friday after the government abruptly canceled a news conference by the prime minister on its decision to lift its COVID-19 state of emergency in six prefectures ahead of the scheduled end date on March 7.

As the Cabinet’s public relations secretary, Yamada had been expected to preside over the news conference.

The sudden change prompted speculation that the administration was trying to shield Yamada from inquiries about her involvement in the conflict-of-interest scandal. The news conference was replaced with a more informal, 20-minute exchange between Suga and the press, but questions were still raised — putting the prime minister on the defensive. He insisted the controversy over Yamada hadn’t factored in the decision, and tried to reassure those gathered that the forum they’d been expecting would be held when the state of emergency is lifted in all prefectures.

With Yamada absent from Monday’s Lower House Budget Committee meeting, having already resigned the previous evening, proceedings didn’t go as the opposition had anticipated. Nonetheless, Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), criticized Suga for not having asked her to step down last week.

Noting that many communications ministry bureaucrats had been reprimanded in a scandal involving Suga’s own child, Edano accused the prime minister of being politically responsible for their ethical lapses — for which the prime minister apologized.

“I’m deeply sorry that the involvement of my family members caused public servants to act contrary to their code of conduct, and I apologize to the public,” Suga said.

Considering the low levels of approval for opposition parties, the impact of further questioning would have been limited, said Mieko Nakabayashi, a professor of political science at Waseda University.

The latest Nikkei poll from Sunday showed the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s approval rating at 45%, with that of the opposition CDP at 11%.

With the public unlikely to be satisfied with her voluntary one-month salary cut, Yamada’s resignation may be aimed at stemming any further damage from the scandal, Nakabayashi suggested.

On the other hand, ”the resignation was the last resort, so there’s a high possibility that the matter will be put to an end,” she added.

Damage to public perception of the prime minister and his son will remain, Nakabayashi said, and “if the opposition is strong enough, an effect on the LDP would be possible.”

But with opposition party popularity so low, “the LDP likely won’t see them as a threat,” she said.

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