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Critics Accuse Japan's New Leader Of Trampling On Academic Freedoms

NOEL KING, HOST:

Japan's new prime minister has been in office for about two months, and he's having some problems. Critics are accusing him of trampling on academic freedoms. This is a rare charge in Asia's oldest democracy, and many Japanese people think it's a bad sign for his administration. Here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn from Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: During World War II, Japan's government forced scientists to cooperate in developing an atom bomb. After the war, the Science Council of Japan was established to make sure this did not happen again. It's independent from the government, and its members, including scholars in both the sciences and humanities, have pledged not to participate in military research. By law, council members nominate new scholars to the group, and then the prime minister appoints them as a sort of formality.

But Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declined to appoint Professor Takaaki Matsumiya of Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto and five others to the council. Matsumiya says it's a blow to the rule of law.

TAKAAKI MATSUMIYA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "If this is repeated," he says, "the prime minister will be able to appoint all public servants at his discretion. That's a dictatorship."

Matsumiya is a criminal law expert. In 2017, he testified in Parliament against a bill proposed by Suga's predecessor, Shinzo Abe. The bill was supposed to prevent terrorism, but Matsumiya said it could be used to curtail civil liberties. The five other scholars whom Suga declined to appoint have also criticized Abe's national security legislation. Matsumiya says the prime minister's refusal to appoint the scholars has chilling implications.

MATSUMIYA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "It means that a scholar who does not follow the policies of the current administration," he says, "cannot become a member of the Science Council."

He says scholars may now have to think twice before speaking their minds.

MATSUMIYA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "Especially in Japan," he says, "there's a tendency to see which way the wind is blowing before speaking out, and I'm worried that this tendency will spread to scientists and scholars."

Japanese citizens have protested in Tokyo in support of the scholars. Some 500 Japanese academic societies have issued statements opposing Suga's decision. Opposition lawmaker Yukio Edano grilled Suga about the matter at a parliamentary hearing last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YUKIO EDANO: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "Who made this decision, based on what information and standards," he said. "What is the reason for not appointing them?"

The House speaker shushed jeering lawmakers before Suga responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER YOSHIHIDE SUGA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "I will refrain from answering about individual appointments," he said, "because it's a personnel matter." Suga argues that he's under no obligation to appoint anyone.

The Science Council scandal appears to have contributed to an 11% drop in Suga's approval ratings after just a month in office, according to a Nikkei poll.

Ellis Krauss, a Japan expert at the University of California, San Diego, says that Suga, who managed Japan's bureaucracy for eight years under Shinzo Abe, actually got off to a pretty good start as prime minister.

ELLIS KRAUSS: Very surprising 'cause he has no charisma. He's a backstage guy to Abe.

KUHN: Krauss says Suga's refusal to appoint these scholars has made him look petty and vindictive and put him in a debacle of his own making.

KRAUSS: It doesn't make any sense from a political point of view that you pick on an issue that the public didn't care about, and you undermine some of your own new popularity.

KUHN: Even worse, he adds, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has doubled down on its position and launched a review of the Science Council's role.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOUSE ON THE KEYS' "PRAXIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.