PM blocks nominations of six academics to Science Council

Japanese academics are challenging a decision made by the new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, this week to reject the nominations of six academics to the prestigious Science Council of Japan, whose mission is to protect academic freedom.

Demanding an explanation for the rejections, they say it amounts to a threat to academic freedom and risks politicising the advisory body.

The council, though under the jurisdiction of the prime minister, operates independently of the government and is the main representative organisation of Japanese science, social science and the humanities. It makes independent policy recommendations to government.

The six scholars, researchers in social science and humanities, are known for their criticism of the controversial security legislation passed by the then Liberal Democratic Party-led government in 2015 that permits Japan to deploy military forces to respond to foreign attacks under certain conditions. The legislation was seen as boosting the capacity of Japan’s security forces to fight overseas.

The official rejection of six of the 105 nominees – the names are usually put forward by the academic community – is unprecedented in the history of the council established in 1949 to mark a new democratic Japan after its defeat ending World War II.

“The decision by the prime minister is an affront to the importance of academic freedom. We cannot forget that, during the war, scholars were forced to support the Japanese military regime,” explained scientist Satoshi Ihara, spokesperson for the Japan Scientists’ Association that is composed of scholars.

Ihara told University World News that past leaders, such as the popular Yasuhiro Nakasone who was prime minister in the 1980s and known for his right-wing policies, never rejected past council nominees.

Suga took office on 16 September after the resignation on health grounds of previous prime minister Shinzo Abe. The Abe administration ran into controversy for interfering in appointments of bureaucrats, showing a preference for appointing officials who supported government policy. Suga was Abe’s chief cabinet secretary at that time.

Suga has offered no explanation for his rejection of the nominations of the six academics so far, except that he made the decision to ensure ‘wide and comprehensive’ activities within the council.

Ihara contends that, against a backdrop of competition for public funds and growing government strong-arm tactics, the current nomination controversy is a dire warning of the perilous position of academics in Japan.

Monte Cassim, head of Shizenkan University, a newly established graduate institution, told University World News: “The Science Council has traditionally led academic policy free from interference, despite being dependent on public income. That uncontested position is being challenged by a government now on the basis that public subsidies permit a stronger say by the government.”

Public campaign

Scholars have reacted sharply and mounted a public campaign to demand that Suga immediately rescind his decision. They are supported by other intellectuals and opposition parties who have raised the issue in the Japanese parliament, the Diet, with special panels called to meet, although the Diet is not currently in session.

Protests attended by scholars and intellectuals warning of an erosion of democracy and freedom of academic study, were held in front of the prime minister’s office this week. More than 120,000 signatures have been gathered for petitions in just three days, underpinning the mounting criticism.

“It is a great disappointment that appointments were rejected without enough explanation,” said a statement by the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology and Faculty of Letters, at the University of Tokyo where Yoko Kato, one of the rejected nominees, is a professor.

The Mainichi Newspaper, a leading national media organisation, said in an editorial that Suga’s decision was a “serious case of political intervention that could threaten academic freedom. Science develops in a free environment that does not expel diverging opinions or objections”.

The six are Ryuichi Ozawa, a professor at Jikei University School of Medicine, Shigeki Uno of the University of Tokyo, Sadamichi Ashina of Kyoto University, Takaaki Matsumiya of Ritsumeikan University, Yoko Kato of the University of Tokyo and Masanori Okada of Waseda University.

The council's president, Takaaki Kajita, has asked the government to explain why the scholars were blocked, and for the decision to be reversed.

There are alternative opinions about the council and research freedom. Professor Masato Kamikubo, a political scientist at Ritsumeikan University, published an article on 6 October pointing out that not only the government but also researchers, themselves, can hold dogmatic attitudes.

“Japanese universities only follow the decision by the council to campaign against defence research and have set up their guidelines based on the council’s decision. Such stances create an environment that prevents young scholars expressing their ideas and opinions freely,” he wrote in the online version of Diamond magazine, a leading business weekly.

The Science Council comprises active researchers in the sciences and those who have produced outstanding research results and other achievements. There are currently 870,000 members across the country. The council is supported by public subsidies of JPY1 billion (US$9.4 million) annually.