On Wednesday, 24 February, Internal Affairs Minister Ryota Takeda announced the results of an internal investigation that found that 13 current and former Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) officials had violated administrative ethics rules. The officials, 11 of whom are expected to receive salary cut, reprimands, and other administrative punishments, had over several years accepted meals and other favors from Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s son Seigo and other executives at Tohokushinsha Film, a company that produces TV programming and other satellite broadcasting and is licensed by MIC. The prime minister has faced significant questioning in Budget Committee hearings over the controversy this week. The widening scandal now threatens to weaken Suga’s support again after his approval ratings had stabilized amidst declining Covid-19 case numbers, rising approval of his handling of the pandemic, and optimism about vaccines.
The ministry’s decision to reprimand 11 officials is unlikely to end the controversy. First, one of the officials not to receive a formal reprimand is Makiko Yamada, who is now serving as public relations secretary in the prime minister’s office. Yamada was found to have attended a JPY 74,203 (USD 702)-per-person dinner covered by the company in November 2019, when the prime minister was chief cabinet secretary. Suga insisted that Yamada should remain in her post, noting her pioneering status as the first woman to serve in the PR role; she was a favorite official of Suga and former prime minister Shinzo Abe, being tapped for increasingly powerful offices at MIC after she became the first woman to serve as one of the prime minister’s administrative secretaries in 2013. As a now-former MIC official who was called out of retirement to serve in the prime minister’s office, she will not be punished by the ministry but she has indicated that she will return a portion of her salary and reimburse Tohokushinsha. Nevertheless, her relationship with both Sugas remains under increasingly heavy scrutiny and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has assented to her appearing as a witness in Diet questioning on Thursday, 25 February.
There are other unanswered questions that will ensure that the Suga administration will continue to face questions over the relationship between MIC and Tohokushinsha. Takeda, for example, admitted Wednesday that he could not say whether MIC officials engaged in similar practices with executives from other firms in their regulatory purview. Meanwhile, questions remain about why Tohokushinsha – which the ministry found had treated the 13 officials to meals and other entertainment 39 times over five years – was so assiduously courting its regulators. Finally, although the prime minister has denied that he was aware of his son’s activities – although he acknowledged his son’s transgressions and apologized to the public Wednesday – the controversy has already revived concerns from the Abe administration that political control over administrative appointments has fundamentally changed the incentive structure for senior bureaucrats to the point that they are now increasingly inclined to pursue opportunities that they believe would satisfy political leaders even at the risk of violating administrative rules or laws. To the extent that opposition lawmakers and the media continue to scrutinize these issues and uncover new information, it could be difficult for the prime minister to gain the momentum needed to secure a new leadership mandate later this year.