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Suga faces widening ethics scandal at communications ministry

Official admits to being treated to dinners by NTT group executives

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga answers questions during a parliamentary committee session Feb. 4. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A senior communications ministry official, who played a key role in achieving Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's major political goal of lowering mobile phone fees, admitted Thursday that he had dined with executives of Japan's telecom giant NTT group, in a potential ethics code violation.

The official's admission in parliament came a day after weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun reported online that he was treated by the executives to three expensive dinners, costing a total of more than 170,000 yen ($1,600).

However, Yasuhiko Taniwaki, vice minister for policy coordination at the ministry, said he paid the amount asked by the NTT group and added, "I thought it did not violate the ethics code, so I did not report it."

Along with other senior officials, Taniwaki was recently reprimanded by the ministry for violating the code for accepting lavish dinners from executives of Tohokushinsha Film Corp. including the prime minister's eldest son.

Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., a technology and communications titan in Japan, is also subject to the ministry's supervision.

The National Public Service Ethics Law prohibits central government officials from receiving favors from companies in sectors they regulate and states that meals expected to cost more than 10,000 yen must be declared beforehand.

The ministry said last week that no further violations of the code were found following its probe into the first scandal involving Tohokushinsha, which runs a satellite broadcasting business to which it grants licenses.

"In light of the situation, we expect the communications ministry will swiftly, accurately and thoroughly investigate what happened," Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said at a regular news conference, referring to the new scandal.

NTT has admitted its president Jun Sawada dined with communications ministry officials.

The officials Sawada entertained between 2018 and last year included Makiko Yamada, who resigned Monday as a press official for Suga after she was found to have been treated to a dinner worth 74,000 yen in Tokyo in 2019 by the broadcaster, according to the magazine report.

At the time, Yamada was vice minister for policy coordination at the ministry, over which Suga has a strong influence as he served as vice minister and minister there in the 2000s.

Appearing at the House of Councillors' Budget Committee on Thursday, Taniwaki said, "I want to apologize for causing further distrust among the people."

Citing the new investigation, he stopped short of providing details, but admitted attending three dinners that he said were social gatherings for "exchanging views on telecommunications in general."

Jun Azumi, the Diet affairs chief of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said the results of the ministry's probe must be released as soon as possible.

He said the wining and dining reported by the magazine is "beyond common sense."

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