By Minami Akira and Eguchi Satoru
Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s first Diet session ended, revealing his aversion to giving answers to many questions directed at him as his government tried to bring COVID-19 under control through a series of state of emergency declarations. Kasumigaseki bureaucrats also evaded answering legislators’ questions in an attempt to conceal inconvenient truths. This reflects the belittling attitude toward the Diet that took hold in the government, despite the fact that the legislative body represents the Japanese people.
Suga’s Diet remarks were dominated by apologies from the start of the session that just ended. Nonetheless, he succeeded in passing 61 of the 63 government-sponsored bills submitted, including bills on digital transformation and climate change that he himself strongly backed. Meanwhile, his absence from the Diet and reluctance to provide explanations stood out throughout the session.
“I don’t understand why the prime minister isn’t in attendance,” members of the Lower House Committee on Rules and Administration complained at a meeting where a government official explained plans for replacing a state of emergency with quasi-emergency measures in Tokyo and elsewhere. Minister in charge of Economic Revitalization answered questions.
Since COVID-19 started to spread rapidly in January until the end of the session, government representatives appeared at both chambers’ rules and administration committees a total of 15 times to explain decisions on declaring and lifting of state of emergencies and subjecting some regions to stricter anti-COVID-19 measures. Some of the government measures were of such a nature as to impact people’s private rights. The Diet has jurisdiction over the restriction of the private rights in principle; the opposition members of the Diet asked for the prime minister’s attendance almost every time such matters were discussed. Suga, however, complied only twice.
During an extraordinary Diet session last fall, Suga refused to answer questions on more than 100 occasions in a 41-day period, saying, “I will refrain from answering that question.” Some of the questions involved appointments at the Science Council of Japan.
The current session started amid the low cabinet approval rating due to its slow response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Suga apologized 78 times in the 150 days of the session. That is not a testimony to his humility, however.
“Suga’s responses are far too short, and his remarks lack substance. He is making light of the Diet,” criticized a member of the Upper House rules and administration committee, after a question-and-answer session on January 21 ended with the prime minister giving a 10-minute response to each of the 30-minutes of questions from the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party. “You are not answering the question!” some committee members heckled. While the government under the former Abe administration spent five hours and 10 minutes answering questions during a Diet session (about 89% of the length of time members spent posing questions), Suga’s government only spent three hours 45 minutes (about 59% of the time spent for questions.)
In an unusual move, the rules and administration committee chair Mizuochi Toshiei (LDP) complained to the Kantei [Prime Minister’s Office]: “The prime minister’s answers are too brief. We need more thorough responses.”
The trend became even clearer on May 10 during a Lower House Budget Committee meeting. With the third state of emergency declared, the issue was whether or not to hold the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Yamai Kazunori from the CDPJ asked whether the Games would be held if the country reached the stage-4 level of infection. The prime minister avoided giving an answer and said instead, “We will implement strict anti-infection measures for athletes and officials to ensure safe participation, while protecting the lives and health of the Japanese people.” Yamai tried to elicit an answer from Suga six more times, but each time Suga repeated: “My answer is as I have just said.”
“It is as if he is giving answers without even hearing the questions,” says Uenishi Mitsuko, a Hosei University professor of law. Because he is said to resemble the goat that eats a letter without reading it [in a popular Japanese children’s song], Suga’s answers are nicknamed “the goat’s response.” On May 14, CDPJ Diet Affairs Committee chair Azumi Atsushi sarcastically described Suga’s performance in the Diet: “Suga’s attitude of not wanting to come, not wanting to attend, not wanting to speak reminds me of the three monkeys,” referring to the famous three monkeys depicting ‘see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil’” at Nikko’s Tosho Shrine.
Bureaucrats imitating Suga, citing “no memory,” “no list”
Suga’s attitude toward the Diet is spreading across a wide range of government organizations. There were many bureaucrats whose priority seemed to be protecting the prime minister and their agencies.
The most symbolic was the issue surrounding Tohoku Shinsha, a satellite broadcaster where Suga’s eldest son is employed. The company is suspected of violating the law that restricts foreign investment. During a Diet meeting, Minister of internal Affairs and Communications Takeda Ryota was overheard saying, “Say you don’t remember” to a senior ministry official who was on his way to answer a question. The official, who was himself accused of involvement in the affair, repeated: “I don’t remember.”
A third-party investigation of the Tohoku Shinsha scandal produced a report on June 4 that stated: “It is regrettable that there were many ministry officials who repeatedly excused themselves by saying that they didn’t remember, even though the actions in question went forward based on decisions they themselves made and processed.” The Communications Ministry never presented official documents they are supposed to have kept, and no logical explanation for this was given by its officials.
The ministry officials were also found to have made false statements about its senior officials being entertained by Tohoku Shinsha personnel, including Suga’s son. “It seems to me that [false answers were made] to protect the officials themselves rather than certain politicians or the ministry,” said a ministry official who was not one of the accused. “We should have admitted our own fault and taken appropriate measures. The problem persisted longer because of the initial denial.”
This is not only a problem with the communications ministry.
The Ministry of Defense, along with the Cabinet Secretariat, had denied the existence of a list of areas near important facilities, such as bases of the Self-Defense Forces and nuclear plants, to be restricted under new rules of the land-use law, only to admit its existence shortly before the Lower House committee voting at the insistence of the opposition camp. Even then, the government side didn’t disclose the list, citing security reasons.
The Ministry of Justice also submitted an interim report on the death of a Sri Lankan in an immigration facility, without citing the fact that a doctor had recommended her provisional release on the basis of health concerns. Although the opposition parties demanded disclosure of a video recording of the inside of the facility, the ministry rejected the request, citing public safety concerns.
“It is the major premise of the sovereignty of the people that the government, as the executive power, explains its actions to the Diet,” Minamino Shigeru, a constitutional scholar at Kyushu University points out. “The disrespect of the Diet since the Abe administration has allowed the unreasonable wielding of power, resulting in the loss of ‘neutrality of the government.’ Both ruling and opposition parties must ponder the meaning ‘the highest institution of sovereignty’ and restore it to its rightful place.” (Slightly Abridged)