Photo/Illutration State minister in charge of economic revitalization Yasutoshi Nishimura, left, attends an April 7 meeting with members of a Cabinet experts panel on the new coronavirus. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Date Masamune (1567-1636), a powerful "daimyo" feudal lord of the Tohoku region, joined forces with Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) on the eve of the historic Battle of Sekigahara in 1600.

Ieyasu sent him a certified document to the effect that if Masamune successfully repelled enemy forces, he would be rewarded with vast territory in the Tohoku region.

However, the actual land Masamune received turned out to be much smaller than promised.

This historical episode became the origin of the Japanese expression "Hyakumangoku no Osumitsuki" (guarantee of reward of a domain worth 1 million 'koku'), the "koku" denoting an old unit of dry measure equivalent to 180 liters of rice in this case.

The days of feudal daimyo and "shogun" warlords are long gone, but "osumitsuki"--a document endorsed by someone in authority--still carries weight today.

Here's an example: A government advisory committee met in April to discuss the nation's basic COVID-19 response. The government wanted to close all schools around Japan at the time, and the officials were desperate to obtain the endorsement of experts, according the minutes of the meeting.

In drafting the policy plan, the government proposed including the phrase, "in keeping with the opinion of the panel of experts that the simultaneous suspension of all operations is desirable."

But because the panel had not formed any opinion on the closure of all schools, member professors and other experts questioned and objected to that phrase.

The government then proposed tweaking the wording, but the experts pushed back and continued to stand their ground, even when Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of COVID-19 response, challenged them with the question, "Are you saying the children should keep going to school?"

The experts kept arguing, "Even when infections are spreading, the children should be guaranteed their right to education," and, "It is not practical to close all schools simultaneously."

They refused to compromise, and ultimately killed the government's proposal.

I don't even have to bring up the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution scandals to point out the government's deep reluctance of late to reveal the contents of meetings and official documents.

But if the minutes of a meeting are brought to light, such as in the above case, people can examine the process and form their own judgement. And that is entirely different from being only shown the results and told to accept them.

An endorsement by an expert is not a convenient "voucher."

The spirited exchanges at the April meeting taught us about the necessary distance between politics and science.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 26

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.