Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe apologizes in the Feb. 14 Lower House Budget Committee for an earlier statement about working hours. (Takeshi Iwashita)

In a rare move, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Feb. 14 apologized and retracted a remark about working conditions that was based on inadequate data.

Under criticism and seeking smooth passage of the fiscal 2018 government budget, Abe told the Lower House Budget Committee session that the data he presented for his Jan. 29 remark had not been thoroughly vetted.

The Abe administration has placed priority on passing legislation in the current Diet session to deal with the persistent problem of long overtime hours put in by Japanese workers.

Abe’s retracted statement seemed to indicate that those working under discretionary labor contracts worked fewer hours than normal employees who tend to work more stable hours and are paid separately for their overtime work.

Those working under a discretionary labor contract system are paid a predetermined amount that assumes the worker will put in a certain amount of overtime.

Abe based his comment on an October 2013 study by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare of working hours at companies and offices around Japan.

However, opposition party members and experts criticized Abe for cherry-picking data that suited his argument. They said Abe chose that data to give the impression that a discretionary labor system would not necessarily lead to long working hours.

Opposition parties have argued that the discretionary system would have no restrictions on overtime and even worsen the situation regarding long working hours.

They also pointed to other studies showing that people employed under the discretionary labor system worked longer hours than normal workers.

Even labor ministry officials admitted that the data Abe used was dodgy.

“There is no mistaking that the data was inappropriate,” a high-ranking ministry official said. “It will be difficult to use those figures in future Diet deliberations.”

Critics noted that one problem with the ministry’s study is that it calculated overtime work by interviewing an “average worker” chosen by the company being studied instead of compiling the overtime hours of all workers and working out an average figure.

Abe apparently made the quick retraction to avoid delays in Diet deliberations. His administration is seeking to pass the fiscal 2018 budget through the Lower House by the end of February.

However, his comment could still come back to haunt the government as it tries to pass legislation to revise labor laws that deal with overtime.

Under the government’s current plan, a single bill would cover both revising rules on overtime hours and allowing for an expansion of the discretionary labor system.

The opposition parties are already demanding that the government split up the proposed legislation and focus only on a bill that would crack down on companies that allow its workers to put in long overtime hours.