As the autumn extraordinary Diet session began on Oct. 4, we argued that the Abe administration should sincerely fulfill its responsibility to offer clear, honest answers to questions about its policies.

That would be a first step toward restoring the legislature’s ability to serve as an effective watchdog of the administrative branch.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s answers to questions about his policy speech to open the session, however, gave no encouraging signs of a willingness to engage in in-depth debate with opposition parties over key policy issues.

Yukio Edano, head of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, asked questions on Oct. 7 about three issues: Kansai Electric Power Co. executives’ acceptance of cash and other gifts from a former influential town official, now deceased, who was a local bigwig in a town where one of the utility’s nuclear power plants is located; the education ministry’s decision to cancel a state subsidy for the Aichi Triennale 2019, an art festival in Aichi Prefecture marred by an acrimonious dispute over a politically sensitive exhibit; and Japan Broadcasting Corp.’s (NHK) questionable responses to protests from Japan Post Group over a TV program that reported on the Japan Post Insurance Co.’s inappropriate practices in the sales of its insurance products.

Edano, who leads a unified opposition parliamentary bloc, argued that the gift-taking scandal involving Kansai Electric Power executives should not be seen merely as a problem of a private-sector company.

The opposition leader said that the scandal has cast light on the utility’s culture of cover-ups and a dubious money flow from a nuclear host community that receives heavy state subsidies to the public utility that operates a nuclear power plant in the community. He maintained that the revelations point to “grave problems with the foundation of the government’s nuclear power policy” and called for a government-led, all-out investigation into the allegations.

But Abe only said he will wait for the conclusion of an independent fact-finding committee to be set up by the utility.

Edano criticized the education ministry’s decision to withdraw a subsidy to the troubled art festival, which has faced threats, intimidation and other verbal attacks, saying the ministry has effectively provided assistance to the intimidators. He called for the provision of the subsidy to the event according to the initial decision.

In his reply to Edano’s questions on the issue, Abe referred to the principle that such decisions should be made by the ministries and agencies involved according to the regulations and the purposes of the budget for such subsidies. Then Abe said the Agency for Cultural Affairs, which is supervised by the education ministry, has made the decision accordingly, as if he had nothing to do with the issue.

With regard to NHK’s program on Japan Post Insurance’s dubious sales practices, the CDP chief raised questions about the NHK Board of Governors’ intervention in the content of specific programs and attempts by Yasuo Suzuki, senior executive vice president of Japan Post Holdings Co. and a former top bureaucrat at the communications ministry, which regulates Japan Post, to put pressure on the public broadcaster.

Abe took a noncommittal stance toward this issue as well, saying the communications ministry will deal with it “appropriately.”

Abe made a more spirited and eloquent response to what Edano described as a “crisis of freedom of expression and the press,” which he argued is a common thread to both art exhibition and NHK issues.

“As you can see in daily news reporting on the Abe administration, there is no news organization that is hesitant” about criticizing the government, he said.

“Your remarks sound like a warning about a crisis that does not exist and represent an affront to both artists and news organizations and could cause international misunderstandings,” Abe added.

Abe’s response to Edano’s question seems to indicate his defiance of criticism and shows no signs of a humble commitment to avoiding any action that could threaten freedom of speech and expressions.

The session for opposition questions about Abe’s policy speech was delayed by about one and a half hours because of controversial remarks by Lower House Speaker Tadamori Oshima concerning a bill to revise the national referendum law, which sets rules for national referendums on amending the Constitution.

In a speech on Oct. 5, Oshima, a lawmaker of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, called on the ruling and opposition parties to reach an agreement on the bill during the extraordinary Diet session. His remarks provoked a strong backlash among opposition parties.

Oshima on Oct. 7 pledged to maintain a fair and neutral stance in handling Diet affairs and agendas. But it is hard to defend the thoughtless remarks he made as the speaker of the Lower House.

Oshima, who is known for preaching the importance of the Diet’s role as the watchdog of the government, should first demonstrate his commitment to the cause.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 8