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Political pressure is growing on the Suga administration after details emerged about the Cabinet’s role in formulating a controversial request to liquor suppliers that asked them to halt alcohol sales to restaurants flouting COVID-19 guidelines — a development that has put the already embattled prime minister even further on the back foot.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of the coronavirus response, said Wednesday that the government’s request that vendors pause sales to establishments continuing to sell alcohol — despite being asked not to do so amid Tokyo’s latest state of emergency — had been retracted a day earlier. But the retraction is unlikely to end Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s political headache, as an uproar of criticism has continued to reverberate within the political arena.

Opposition lawmakers are now targeting Suga as well, after it became clear that such requests had been floated by government officials during a meeting of a select group of ministers last week where he was present.

Nishimura said Wednesday that he was the one who had orchestrated an effort following the ministerial meeting to issue a written request to the liquor industry.

The written notice, issued by the Cabinet Secretariat and the National Tax Agency, drew strong disapproval from All Japan Liquor Merchants Association Chairman Kiyotaka Yoshida. He has argued that complying with such a request would leave their relationship with customers — cultivated over many years — in tatters.

Academics had said such a request was likely to constitute “illegal” administrative guidance, as the tax agency, which directly issues merchants’ business licenses, does not have the authority to demand such action from them — a power only prefectural governors have.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of the coronavirus response, speaks in Tokyo on Tuesday. | KYODO
Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of the coronavirus response, speaks in Tokyo on Tuesday. | KYODO

Yoshida said in a statement Wednesday that he feels relieved the request has been withdrawn.

Nishimura said Wednesday at the Diet that although the written request to the vendors was issued not so much as an order as an appeal for cooperation in containing the spread of the coronavirus, the government nonetheless withdrew it on Tuesday night.

“It was a mistake,” he said. “I feel sorry for causing great concern among liquor vendors.”

The Diet affairs chiefs of three opposition parties — the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), the Japan Communist Party and the Democratic Party For the People — have reportedly agreed to call for Nishimura’s resignation, on the basis that he’s not fit to serve as minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy as well as Japan’s coronavirus response.

Opposition lawmaker Masato Imai of the CDP was among those to grill Nishimura on Wednesday. Considering the request had been hashed out during a ministerial meeting last week where the prime minister was present, Suga should take the blame for the fallout, he said.

However, Nishimura reiterated that he was primarily responsible for the decision, while Suga said Wednesday that there had been no discussion of concrete proposals during the meeting.

“I also would like to apologize for causing inconvenience to a lot of people,” Suga told reporters.

On Wednesday, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of Japan's coronavirus response, retracted a request that suppliers pause sales to establishments continuing to sell alcohol despite being asked not to do so amid Tokyo's latest state of emergency. | KYODO
On Wednesday, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of Japan’s coronavirus response, retracted a request that suppliers pause sales to establishments continuing to sell alcohol despite being asked not to do so amid Tokyo’s latest state of emergency. | KYODO

Asked whether he can continue to trust Nishimura to serve as minister heading up the COVID-19 response, Suga did not directly answer the question, instead saying that Nishimura is absorbed with containing the pandemic day and night, but that it is important for him to explain things carefully.

Nishimura added that the government never intended that liquor merchants would be compelled to follow the request. Brushing aside Imai’s call for his resignation, Nishimura said his duty was to do his best to curb the spread of the pandemic and achieve an economic recovery.

The minister also came under intense criticism from banks after he courted the financial industry’s help last Thursday in reining in restaurants defying requests not to serve alcohol to customers during the fourth state of emergency, which came into effect in the capital Monday.

That request was canceled a day later, as some scholars had raised concerns that it amounted to an abuse of power by the government. Such requests are likely illegal, as Japan’s COVID-19 special measures law only allows prefectural governors to enforce fines or other measures.

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