TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s communications ministry punished 11 senior officials on Wednesday for accepting lavish dinners paid for by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s eldest son and fellow executives at a satellite broadcaster, the latest embarrassment for Suga’s already scandal-laden government.
The case surfaced after weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun reported that Seigo Suga and other executives from satellite broadcaster Tohokushinsha Film had entertained the officials at the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, which regulates communications business.
On Wednesday, the ministry announced penalties including salary cuts and reprimands for the 11 ministry officials for accepting the expensive dinners and gifts in violation of the ethics code.
Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Ryota Takeda told reporters it was regrettable that the case led to the loss of public trust in the government. Takeda said he is taking a three-month salary cut himself and ordered the ministry to set up an investigative panel to look further into the case.
A ministry internal investigation found that the ministry officials received dinners and gifts totaling about 600,000 yen ($5,700) on around 40 occasions from 2016 to 2019. It also found one of Prime Minister Suga's public affairs officials, Makiko Yamada, also accepted an expensive steak dinner when she was at the ministry in 2019.
Suga apologized over his son’s entertaining of the officials. He, however, denied any involvement in his son’s business activity or knowledge of his entertaining of the officials.
"I'm very sorry about my son's involvement that led to illegal activity, and I would like to apologize to the people,(asterisk) Suga said.
The National Public Service Ethics Law prohibits government officials from accepting treats, gifts or entertainment from individuals or companies seeking favorable treatment.
Opposition lawmakers alleged that the officials met with executives of the broadcaster because of its affiliation with Suga's son and raised questions about whether they gave the company favorable treatment.
The scandal could be a further setback for the prime minister, whose approval ratings have been on the decline, with poll respondents saying he was too slow to act on coronavirus measures when infections were surging to new highs in late December.
A vice education minister in Suga's Cabinet was dismissed after he and two other senior governing party lawmakers acknowledged partying at an expensive hostess bar last month, defying a state of emergency, even though the measure is a non-binding request for bars and restaurants to close early and for people to avoid dining out. A former farm minister resigned as lawmaker in December after allegations he took bribes from an egg farm.