Flap over finance official’s ‘pork-barrel’ slur clouds policy debate as vote nears

Steven Spielberg

A top Finance Ministry bureaucrat has sparked controversy and prompted questions over his position after he was quoted in a recent magazine article likening policy debate among lawmakers to “a pork-barrel battle.”

In the November issue of the monthly Bungei Shunju magazine, published last week, Vice Finance Minister Koji Yano criticized policy proposals put forward by both ruling and opposition parties ahead of the Oct. 31 election for the House of Representatives.

The government has since appeared to be trying to downplay the comments, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno telling a news conference Monday that Yano had just expressed his personal opinion.

The top government spokesman declined to say whether Yano should remain in his post, saying only that “it is important for the government and the ruling camp to work as one to implement policies” and that “it is also important for related officials to cooperate fully with our efforts once we set the direction.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno speaks at a news conference at the Prime Minister's Office on Monday. | KYODO
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno speaks at a news conference at the Prime Minister’s Office on Monday. | KYODO

Some senior officials in the government and ruling coalition have expressed dissatisfaction with Yano’s article.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida alluded to the comments during a television appearance Sunday, stating that “after holding discussions, the government and the ruling bloc will communicate and work together to implement policies.”

“Everyone should cooperate once we set the direction,” Kishida added.

Speaking on another TV program the same day, Sanae Takaichi, policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), expressed anger.

“It was an extremely rude way of talking,” Takaichi said. “It is absolute nonsense to insist on (a surplus in) the primary budget balance and not provide support for people in trouble.”

Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, told reporters Sunday that ruling coalition lawmakers are drawing up policies while keeping in mind constraints on financial resources.

Yano did not respond to reporters’ questions when he arrived at the Finance Ministry on Monday morning.

Some administration officials are said to be discussing whether to replace him, but sacking him immediately would contradict a pledge by Kishida to listen to a wide range of views.

There are also concerns that the issue may affect Kishida’s relationship with LDP Vice President Taro Aso, who was previously finance minister, as Yano obtained approval from Aso before contributing his article to the magazine.

A senior ruling coalition official said that the parties will take care not to let the situation deteriorate further.

Some lawmakers have defended Yano, saying that the article only shows the ministry’s basic stance of placing importance on fiscal discipline. Yano’s view is “the same as that maintained by Aso,” a senior LDP lawmaker said. “A car without a brake would be problematic.”

“There is no problem, as there is freedom of opinion,” a source at the Prime Minister’s Office said.

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