Photo/Illutration Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga responds to a lawmaker's question during the Lower House Budget Committee session on Nov. 2. (Koichi Ueda)

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s performance on the first day of the Lower House Budget Committee session dashed hopes that the Diet will get to the bottom of his decision to reject six of the nominees to the Science Council of Japan.

Instead of offering straight answers, Suga spent most of the time reading out prepared answers. Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato and senior bureaucrats came to his rescue by answering questions on his behalf.

The manner in which Suga handled questions made it hard to be optimistic that the key committee session, held under a one-on-one question-and-answer format, will uncover the truth.

The Lower House Budget Committee session on Nov. 2 was the first since the Suga administration was inaugurated.

All opposition lawmakers who asked questions took up the issue of Suga’s decision not to appoint six researchers as new members of the Science Council of Japan.

This is a weighty issue because the decision threatens the council’s independence and neutrality from the government and could undermine academic freedom.

Some critics say the issue stems from the Suga administration’s high-handed approach.

Opposition lawmakers had good reason to press Suga to clarify the questions that remained unanswered during the discussions on his policy speech at the start of the extraordinary Diet session.

But Suga failed to offer a convincing explanation.

He reiterated that the decision was aimed at ensuring the council will engage in “comprehensive and bird’s-eye view-based activities” and securing “diversity” of the membership in terms of age, birthplace and alma mater.

Suga even criticized the council for being “closed” and controlled by “vested interests.”

When one questioner suggested that rejecting the six candidates ran counter to diversity, Suga simply declined to be drawn on specific appointments.

When asked whether his decision was influenced by the fact the six academics had expressed political views that put them at odds with his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, such as the state secrets protection law and national security legislation, Suga replied, “That can never be the case.”

He also stated afresh that he did not see the entire list of 105 candidates recommended by the council and had not known even the names of five of the six candidates nor read their publications. If so, who singled out these six for rejection and for what reason?

Suga’s answers reinforced the case for questioning Kazuhiro Sugita, a deputy chief Cabinet secretary, who is said to have been involved in the government’s intervention in the council’s personnel affairs, which apparently started when Abe was in power.

When the process of selecting new council members switched from a system based on elections to one based on recommendations, the prime minister at the time, Yasuhiro Nakasone, told the Diet that the government’s only role was to “formally appoint” new members.

A government document prepared when the body to make membership recommendations changed from academic societies to council members carried the presumption that the prime minister would not refuse to appoint a recommended candidate.

Two years ago, however, the Abe administration produced a document saying the prime minister is not legally bound to appoint all academics recommended by the council. It had the Cabinet Legislation Bureau approve the document and opened the door to Suga’s decision to meddle in the membership appointment process.

This represents an affective change in the government’s interpretation of the law without explaining it to the Diet, no matter how hard government officials deny that is so.

Clearly, the legislature cannot overlook such an action that undermines the stability of the foundation of Japan’s commitment to the rule of law.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is working hard to cast the issue as one that concerns problems with the council, seemingly to deflect criticism of Suga’s questionable decision.

If the ruling party is aware of the Diet’s vital and nonpartisan mission as the watchdog of the administrative branch, it should focus its efforts on ascertaining the truth of the matter.

It should start by accepting calls for Sugita to be summoned to answer related questions at the Budget Committee.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 3