Friday, September 19, 2008

Gaffe Minister Falls under Early-Election Juggernaut; Takes Deputy as “Travelling Companion on Road to Netherworld”

This morning, Seiichi Oota, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, heavily challenged where his political hearing is concerned*, took a hit for the team. I’ll spare you the details, but a series of misstatements and gaffes over a serious rice contamination scandal forced the MAFF Minister to go to the Prime Minister’s office and hand in his resignation papers to Mr. Fukuda.

Briefly for those of you who don’t follow the Japanese political scene as a matter of routine, unscrupulous businessmen bought imported rice contaminated by mold or pesticides (and thus suitable only for glue manufacture and other industrial use) at dirt-cheap prices and passed it on for human consumption at huge markups.** The matter appears to have been exposed by the kind of whistleblowers who had up till now had come up with a whole range of embarrassing but physically harmless fraudulent labeling cases. This one had potential health implications, and, unlike the poisoned Chinese dumplings, there was no third country to blame. Minister Oota made statements that were, with a little tweaking, easy to construe as belittling the problem, and a statement from the top MAFF bureaucrat, the administrative Vice Minister, ducking MAFF responsibility poured oil onto the fire. The public is charging the MAFF bureaucracy with gross negligence for overlooking the malfeasance. The misdeed likely could have been detected, but MAFF had always given prior notice weeks before mandated inspections, making it easy for the firms to have engineered a cover-up. It was obvious that once Mr. Oota went down, the Vice Minister had to go too, and he is.

The opposition had, quite properly, decided to initiate a thorough investigation in the Upper House, where they hold a majority, while the Lower House would be up to their elbows in a general election campaign. In fact, the opposition is likely to follow Ross’s suggestion and put it together with the other scandals—most recently the Social Insurance Agency conspiring (systemically, according to Minister Yoichi Masuzoe) with hard-up businesses to reduce pension premium payment delinquencies and consequently reduce eventual pension payments—to hold the LDP responsible for looking out for business interests and being at the mercy of the bureaucracy at the expense of the consumer and the general public. So, the investigation will still happen in the run-up to the Lower House election, though the resignations put something of a damper on the public outrage.

* First noted on this blog here.

** One businessman committed suicide.

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