TOKYO – Just two and a half weeks into his tenure as Prime Minister, a controversy is already threatening to hurt Mr Yoshihide Suga’s sky-high approval ratings.
The PM is tasked with appointing scholars to the Japan Science Council, which is set up within the government but makes policy recommendations independent from it.
This would ordinarily be a rubber-stamp process, with the names nominated by the Council approved by the PM. In a first, however, Mr Suga rejected six out of the 105 names submitted this year, causing an uproar that his government is curtailing academic freedoms.
All six had crossed Mr Suga when he was Chief Cabinet Secretary by voicing opposition to controversial policies in the past.
The government has refused to explain why the six academics were rejected, despite calls for an explanation by the Council President Takaaki Kajita, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2015.
A minor protest, attended by about 300 people, broke out in front of the Prime Minister’s Office on Saturday (Oct 3).
But observers also noted that the treatment is in line with Mr Suga’s reputation as Chief Cabinet Secretary of demoting bureaucrats who did not see eye to eye with him.
“The Suga administration does not seem very interested in liberalism, as seen from the refusal to appoint the members,” University of Tokyo political scientist Yu Uchiyama told The Sunday Times.
But on the flipside, Mr Suga’s hold on the bureaucracy could make him more adept at bulldozing through the reforms that he wants and undoing practices that are leftover relics from Japan’s heady bubble era.
“I feel that the awareness for reforms is quite strong,” Dr Sota Kato, a research director at The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research think-tank, told The Sunday Times.
“The new Prime Minister will put considerable effort into improving productivity through regulatory reforms. He has the know-how and personal connections to eliminate resistance from businesses or other groups with vested interests.”
One of those leading the charge is administrative reform minister Taro Kono, a former defence and foreign minister, who wants to stamp out inkan or hanko seals and fax machines that remain commonplace.
Mr Kono also led the charge last year to switch the naming order of Japanese names in English such that the family name is written first, as is how they are presented in Japanese.
In arguing for a reversal of what has effectively been government policy since the Meiji era (1868 to 1912), Mr Kono argued that Chinese and Korean names are be written in English as they are read in their native languages.
What this means is that “Yoshihide Suga” should, in fact, be written as “Suga Yoshihide”, though the practice has been inconsistently adopted in the Japanese government, let alone the private sector.
But Mr Kono might well see more success with his push to eliminate the seals and fax machines, especially with the push to go paperless amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr Suga has also named to the Cabinet Japan’s first Digital Minister, Mr Takuya Hirai, who was directed to set up a digital agency to speed up the inefficient bureaucracy.
Mr Kono told a news conference last month: “I don’t think there are that many administrative procedures that actually need printing out paper and faxing.
“Why do we need to print paper? In many cases, it’s simply because the hanko stamp is required. If we can put a stop to that culture, it will eliminate the need for paper, faxing and seals.”
He then said in a tweet on Friday (Oct 2): “We checked 800 most often used government procedures with hanko, or name stamp or seal, and found few of them need to continue with hanko. This is the first step to make those procedures online.”
Experts were split over the possibility of success, unless Mr Suga weighs in with his influence.
Dr Uchiyama told The Sunday Times: “Mr Kono is very energetic, but I think the resistance is strong.”
Still, Dr Kato said: “In the case of the seals, there are interest groups that are connected to LDP (the ruling Liberal Democratic Party) members and have hindered reforms.
“But if it becomes a major agenda, it will be a game of numbers and the resistance of small interest groups can be overcome.”