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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga started off surprisingly well, despite his uncharismatic personality and selection by the Liberal Democratic Party’s archaic factional support process. Playing up his humble origins in Akita Prefecture and reforms for the daily life of the people, he soon became the third most popular prime minister at the beginning of his term. Then he picked an unnecessary and counterproductive fight with the Science Council of Japan (hereafter, SCJ), an obscure but prestigious government advisory body.

The SCJ’s highest body, its council, consists of the worthiest scholars from a wide range of fields that include the social sciences, humanities and natural sciences. The 210-member council coordinates scientific activities and advises the government on science policy. The council is an honorary, prestigious academic body whose members are nominated by the council, approved by its general assembly and, in what has usually been a pro forma process, appointed by the prime minister. Its functions are twofold: as an advisory body on science broadly defined and a way to honor distinguished academics in all fields. Most Japanese outside the scholarly community were probably unaware of it until Suga picked a fight. With half of the council’s membership selected every three years, 105 were nominated this time, but Suga in an unusual move approved only 99 of them, rejecting six.

There are three possible reasons, each suggested by the government’s own statements justifying the rejections, which were followed by a storm of academic and opposition party criticism. The first is vindictiveness. It turns out that the rejected nominees were law and political science critics of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s national security policies, including his push for constitutional reform. A coincidence? The scholarly community and opposition parties suspect this was intentional interference in academic freedom. Suga claims it wasn’t and that the law gives him the right to be selective in approval, a possible interpretation of the law establishing the SCJ’s council.

It would not be the first time an LDP administration interfered with an academic organization. In 2003, in an incident well known among American Japan specialists, the government attempted to end funding for a project on historical memory when conservative journalist Komori Yoshihisa violated confidentiality rules and in a series of articles that falsely accused the organizers and other participants of being “anti-Japanese.” More recently and directly related to the Abe administration in which Suga served, in what has became known as the “Arrington Affair,” professor Celeste Arrington was denied a research grant by the Social Science Research Council and the Japan Foundation — despite her proposal being the highest ranked by the screening committee — because she had once written an article with a critical reference to Shinzo Abe and Japan’s policy toward the Comfort Women. A long article about both affairs can be found here.

A second possible reason is parochialism. Suga has justified his action on the grounds that the council members are essentially “civil servants” and most of their budget comes from the national government. Of course, by that rather strange standard, are private university faculty members (some of whom were among those rejected by Suga) as well as private corporation employees who get grants or loans from the government civil servants? This very archaic view seems to echo earlier Japanese history. Japanese universities were originally founded in the Meiji Era drive for modernization to defend itself from Western imperialism. Its vaunted National University system today were “Imperial Universities” before the war. Does Suga regard academic institutions that receive any government funding to be working for the government and not independent bodies protected by academic freedom? Of course, all governments try to influence the budgets of academic bodies they don’t like, but in a democratic world, they aren’t supposed to interfere in their operations.

The irony is that the government subsidies for the council is, as American bureaucrats call it, “decimal dust,” that is minuscule and almost invisible in the context of the overall national budget. Its national subsidy is the equivalent of $10 million out of Japan’s total of nearly $51 billion education budget. The U.S. National Science Foundation, which awards grants, something the SCJ does not, has a budget of $8 billion. “Decimal dust” indeed. Added to that, since one of the SCI’s main functions is to advise on science, the government benefits greatly from the council’s activities.

The final possibility is ignorance or incompetence. Suga also claims he never saw the original list and only saw the final list of 99 recommended scholars, implying the six names were removed by someone else prior to giving it to the Suga for approval. If so, what was a lesser flunky doing making that decision? For an astute micro-manager like Suga who made his reputation as Abe’s chief Cabinet secretary, what does this imply about Suga now as prime minister?

Suga’s approval rating dropped 7% from its previous highs in the latest NHK public opinion survey, likely because of this conflict. The shame of this is that, no matter the real explanation or motive, this was a totally unnecessary fiasco. Suga’s policies of fighting the pandemic, digitalizing the economy, quickly reducing cellphone costs and ending the cumbersome use of personal seals on many government documents generally seemed to be a hit with the public. Suga, with his nonelite roots and government experience, should have known that the average Japanese couldn’t care less about the council’s members. Quiet approval of the recommended nominees would have been in line with precedent and avoided a silly public fight that alienated Japan’s respected scientific community in the midst of the pandemic and that the opposition parties now will ensure drags on. To make matters worse, the LDP is doubling down trying to cover for Suga by saying it wants to review the SCJ’s function and relationship to the government and make proposals by year’s end. If this results in a more typical arms-length independent relationship between an academic body and the government as in other democratic countries, that would be one positive outcome. But the signs are that the LDP will try to bind the SCJ closer to government aims, ensuring an even longer public fight and further domestic and international embarrassment.

What are they thinking? Or not?

Ellis S. Krauss is a political scientist specializing in Japan and a professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego.

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