Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga continues to face questions over his decision to appoint only 99 of the 105 individuals recommended for membership in the Science Council of Japan (SCJ), an academic advisory body attached to the prime minister’s office. While Suga and his allies have continued to stress the need to reform the body, Suga gave fuel to the opposition in an interview last week when he admitted that he was never presented with the full list of 105. This admission immediately prompted speculation regarding who in the administration was responsible for removing the six rejected academics from the list before it reached the prime minister.
The upshot is that this issue – which has already dented Suga’s approval ratings – will continue to command public attention ahead of and after the opening of a new Diet session on 26 October. The issue is still too minor to pose a serious threat to Suga’s newborn premiership. However, it could have a lasting impact on the public’s trust in the new prime minister, which could in turn influence how voters respond to future accusations of wrongdoing if and when they emerge.
For now, critical attention is focused on Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita. A veteran intelligence officer at the National Police Agency (NPA), Sugita came out of retirement in 2012 to work with Abe and Suga as the administrative deputy chief secretary, effectively the highest-ranking bureaucrat in the government. He served through the entirety of the second Abe administration. Reports allege that Sugita informed the prime minister that “there are candidates who cannot be appointed” on the list before the list of candidates recommended by the SCJ was presented to Suga.
Accordingly, the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) and three other opposition parties are calling upon Sugita to face parliamentary questioning about his role. The opposition convened a meeting with Kihei Maekawa, the former top bureaucrat at the education ministry who played a central role in an Abe-era scandal regarding favorable treatment for a friend of Abe’s, who suggested that there were previous instances when Sugita had prevented individuals who had criticized government policy from being appointed to advisory councils. The emergence of Sugita as a target of inquiry does not mean that Suga is free from scrutiny. Opposition lawmakers and the media are now probing whether the prime minister had more knowledge of who was being rejected and why they were being rejected.
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has resisted the opposition’s calls for Sugita to testify, citing a precedent against having the administrative deputy chief cabinet secretary appear before the Diet. Instead, the LDP is still trying to shift the terms of debate to a broader discussion of the role of the SCJ. The party launched a working group this week to study reforms. It is unclear, however, whether the LDP’s efforts will draw attention away from the government’s personnel choices. Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobukatsu Kato was even compelled to deny an accusation in circulation among right-wing lawmakers and media outlets that the SCJ was supporting academic exchanges as part of China’s “Thousand Talents” plan, an academic exchange program accused of links to espionage and intellectual property theft activities.