TOKYO -- Japan's ruling coalition was unable to kick off parliamentary deliberations on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's controversial visa program Friday as opposition parties took issue with an erroneous government report on foreign workers, signaling contentious debate to come.
Major opposition parties skipped the debate at the lower house Judicial Affairs Committee after a mistake was found in a Ministry of Justice survey. The survey erroneously reported that 86.9% of the technical interns who went missing after dropping out of the program did so in pursuit of better wages, while the accurate figure came to only 67.2%.
The Justice Ministry blamed a simple data entry error, but the opposition seized on the opportunity.
"How can we continue the deliberations when there was a critical mistake in numbers related to the fundamental aspect of the visa program?" asked Shiori Yamao, a member of the major opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.
The ruling parties went on with the deliberations despite the boycott, prompting the Constitutional Democrats to submit a motion to remove the lower house judicial committee's chairman, Yasuhiro Hanashi. This maneuver practically brought the parliamentary debate to a halt until the ruling coalition can vote down the motion in a plenary session Tuesday.
At a Friday meeting of Diet affairs chiefs, Hiroshi Moriyama of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party protested the opposition's move.
"We don't believe there was any problem in the way Mr. Hanashi ran the committee deliberations," Moriyama said. "This is quite regrettable." He stressed that the motion will be voted down Tuesday.
The ruling parties had planned to explain the gist of the new visa program and hold a question-and-answer session at the lower house Judicial Affairs Committee meeting Friday. Now, the process will be delayed for several days.
With the aim of passing the bill into law during the current Diet session that concludes Dec. 10, the government and the ruling parties had targeted lower house approval for late November. But now with the latest delay, that timeline is less certain.
Some in the ruling camp say the Diet session may have to be extended. But Moriyama dismissed the possibility. "There is no chance of extending the session," he said. "We will be fine."
The program, targeted for launch next April, would create two visa categories for low- and high-skilled foreign workers, with a possible path to permanent residency. Despite Japan's chronic labor shortages, the legislation had drawn sharp attacks from some members of Abe's conservative ruling party.