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Japan's worst ethics row since 1998 highlights government hubris

'Hunter Biden scandal' ignites controversy as PM Suga's son comes under fire

Prime Minister Suga apologized for his son's involvement in the scandal while answering questions from reporters on Feb. 24.

TOKYO -- The story is a familiar one: The child of a powerful political figure is seen tapping their parents' clout to achieve professional success, not unlike the allegations regarding Hunter Biden's foreign contracts that had clouded the campaign of now U.S. President Joe Biden.

But unlike the Biden scandal, in which no evidence of illegal activity has been made public, the growing wining-and-dining scandal in Japan centered on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's eldest son has turned into a major national debate about government ethics, which now threatens to derail some of Suga's top policy concerns.

The employer of Suga's son, satellite broadcaster Tohokushinsha Film, treated 13 bureaucrats mainly from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications to lavish dinners and other outings worth 600,00 yen ($5,700), a ministry probe has found. The younger Suga attended 21 of these events.

In all, 11 bureaucrats were reprimanded in connection to these dinners on Wednesday, making this Japan's worst wining-and-dining scandal since 1998.

Under Japan's government ethics guidelines, bureaucrats may not accept gifts or meals from companies that fall under their jurisdiction. Even if they split the bill, bureaucrats as a general rule must report such meals ahead of time if they exceed 10,000 yen.

Tohokushinsha receives its business license from the communications ministry, meaning the meals could create a potential conflict of interest. Yet the bureaucrats in question failed to report the meals in accordance with ethics rules, and initially told lawmakers they had "no recollection" of whether they were used to talk business.

For public servants to be charged with bribery, authorities need to prove they granted professional favors in exchange for gifts. The value and frequency of the gifts factor into the determination as well. But "there is no evidence that these meals affected policy," Ryota Takeda, minister for internal affairs and communications, has said.

"There's a wide range of people involved, and at this point it's hard to say what the company's purpose was," a prosecutor also said. "The value of favors each bureaucrat received isn't exceptionally high, either."

Even without criminal charges, the saga represents a major breach of ethical norms.

The government adopted its ethical guidelines in 2000 following a major bribery scandal in 1998, in which several finance ministry officials were arrested. Then-Finance Minister Hiroshi Mitsuzuka and then-Bank of Japan Gov. Yasuo Matsushita both stepped down, and 112 ministry staffers were suspended, had their pay cut or were otherwise penalized.

Many have taken the lessons from this incident to heart. "We are extremely careful about how we interact with our contractors," a defense ministry official said. "We'd never even consider going out for a drink with parties like that."

"It's unbelievable these bureaucrats were still accepting taxi fares and souvenirs in this day and age," said an official who works at a separate department within the communications ministry.

The fact that Yoshihide Suga's son was involved may have led the bureaucrats to attend in defiance of ethics guidelines. Suga, who served as chief cabinet secretary to predecessor Shinzo Abe for years, has long held clout over bureaucratic appointments. His son also served as his secretary while he was communications minister.

"The prime minister's son was at the heart of this incident," Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary-general of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, said on Wednesday. "The Japanese public will not accept him getting off scot-free while bureaucrats take all the blame."

The scandal threatens to derail important policies that fall under the communications ministry, like Suga's campaign to lower mobile rates in Japan. The hometown tax donation program, where Japanese taxpayers can choose to donate money to local governments, could be affected as well.

In addition to policy implications, the issue has eroded trust in Suga's government. When weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun first reported the dinners on Feb. 3, Suga said he had "never been aware of any of them" and that he and his son were "completely different people."

"My son is entitled to his privacy," he told lawmakers.

But he struck a more apologetic tone after the communications ministry published the findings of its probe. "Public servants committed ethics violations, and my son was involved," he said and apologized.

Some of the bureaucrats, who initially claimed they did not remember whether they talked business with Suga's son, also changed their tune after voice recordings from the dinners came out. "There probably was some discussion about broadcast satellite, communications satellite and Star Channel," one said. The official was slammed by opposition lawmakers for giving false testimony and has since essentially been demoted.

Takeda ordered on Wednesday a new ministry investigation on whether the dinners had an effect on policy, which will be led by his deputy. The ministry also announced measures to prevent similar incidents, such as conducting an ethics seminar for all high-ranking bureaucrats, and requiring prior notice on all outings that could pose a conflict of interest regardless of cost.

One of the biggest issues for Suga moving forward is the fate of cabinet public relations secretary Makiko Yamada, who was treated to a more than 70,000 yen dinner during her tenure as vice communications minister. The prime minister gave her a severe reprimand, and Yamada has agreed to voluntarily forego her pay. But questions remain on whether this punishment is enough.

Ruling and opposition lawmakers have agreed to summon Yamada to a budgetary meeting in the Diet on Thursday. She, as well as the other bureaucrats involved and Suga, face mounting pressure to give a satisfactory explanation for the incident.

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