The ministry announced that 11 officials had violated its ethics code when they accepted dinners from the prime minister’s eldest son, Suga Seigo. Suga works for Tohoku Shinsha Film Corporation, a video production company whose satellite broadcasting arm would benefit from good relations with the ministry. The scandal was first reported on by weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun in February.
According to the probe, the officials attended 37 dinners hosted by Suga and other Tohoku Shinsha representatives over the past five years, costing more than $5,000 in total. They claim they did not consider the company to be a “stakeholder in ministry operations” at the time, and that they were not involved in any conversations calling for favors.
Yamada Makiko, the current Cabinet Public Relations Secretary, also attended a meal when she worked for the ministry. The dinner is said to have cost more than $700 per person and the ministry says she likely violated the ethics code by accepting an invitation.
The National Public Service Ethics Law, established in 2000, provides the basis for the ministry’s code of ethics. It prohibits civil servants from accepting meals, money, or gifts from parties considered to hold financial interests in government policy. Those found to have violated the law are subject to disciplinary action.
On Wednesday, the ministry announced seven of the officials would receive pay cuts. Two others were warned about their conduct, while another two were reprimanded.
Prime Minister Suga says he was surprised by his son’s actions and that he told him to keep away from the ministry when he joined the company.
The Liberal Democratic Party’s Secretary General, Nikai Toshihiro, has waved away concern that the scandal will derail the Suga administration, saying it will have only a limited impact on the government. But oppositions parties are maintaining pressure on the Prime Minister.
“I can't overlook the fact that a member of the Prime Minister's family was deeply involved in this scandal,” said Tsujimoto Kiyomi, Deputy Representative of the Constitutional Democratic Party. “The son may have been trying to use his father's position to gain an advantage at work. Nobody treats you to such an expensive dinner if they don't have a hidden motive.”
Nakaya Joji, professor at Kindai University and an expert on public service ethics, said the probe reveals a comprehensive failure of judgement on the part of the ministry officials.
“The number of times this happened and the number of people who were involved is very high,” he says. “These were senior officials, those who are not only expected to abide by ethical rules but also to set a standard within the workplace. This scandal will likely affect morale throughout the ministry.”
The government would have been hoping that the probe drew a line under the affair but the opposition parties are making sure it remains in the public eye. They say they will investigate the matter further and summon Yamada as a witness.
The longer the issue lingers, the worse for Suga, who can ill afford even the whiff of scandal at the moment. The embattled Prime Minister is already struggling with plummeting approval rates due to his coronavirus pandemic response, and allegations of cronyism could be a decisive blow for his administration.