TOKYO -- Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's eldest son repeatedly hosted expensive dinners for communications ministry bureaucrats, spending thousands of dollars. Now 11 of the officials are facing punishment for ethics violations.
The younger Suga works for a satellite channel company that stands to benefit from strong ties to the ministry. This is an embarrassing scandal for the prime minister, already facing declining public support over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Public servants committed ethics violations, and my son was involved," Suga told the lower house Budget Committee on Monday. "I offer my deepest apologies."
Suga enjoyed one of the highest approval ratings of a Japanese prime minister when he took office. But public sentiment quickly turned south as coronavirus infections surged and skepticism grew over the Tokyo Olympics scheduled for the summer.
The son's employer, satellite broadcaster Tohokushinsha Film, took 13 senior bureaucrats out a total of 39 times, according to a ministry report submitted Monday to the Budget Committee. Previously, just four officials had been named in the scandal. Suga's son attended 21 of these events.
The total price tag came to nearly 600,000 yen ($5,710), according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.
Tohokushinsha produces commercials, TV programs and films, and operates 10 satellite channels. Since the company receives business licenses from the ministry, such meals are considered to run afoul of government rules regarding conflicts of interest.
"I told my son to maintain his distance from the communications ministry" when he joined Tohokushinsha, the Japanese leader said. Noting that he "was surprised" by the number of meals identified in the ministry probe, Suga called for a thorough investigation.
The communications ministry plans to submit proposed penalties for 11 of the bureaucrats to an ethics committee for civil servants on Wednesday. It excluded from the list one bureaucrat, as well as former Vice Minister for Policy Coordination Makiko Yamada, who now serves as cabinet public relations secretary.
Yamada was treated to a roughly 74,000 yen dinner by Suga's son and Tohokushinsha CEO Kiyotaka Ninomiya in November 2019, during her time as a vice minister. Though the meal likely violated ethics standards, the ministry will not reprimand her, as she no longer works there.
On her current role, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said Monday that she works in a special position with no rules regarding dismissal and that the Cabinet Office will decide whether she will stay based such factors as the ethics committee's determination.
Opposition lawmakers used Monday's Budget Committee meeting to rail against Suga for his son's involvement in the dinners. The cost for Yamada's dinner "goes beyond common sense," a member from the Constitutional Democratic Party said. Suga responded that he will look into the details.
"There is no evidence that these meals affected policy," said Ryota Takeda, minister for internal affairs and communications.
The ministry's latest probe found that another vice minister for policy coordination, Yasuhiko Taniwaki, received the most in favors from Tohokushinsha: more than 110,000 yen in meals, souvenirs and taxi fares. Two separate ministry officials had been demoted as of Saturday in connection with the scandal.