TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who marked one month in office on Friday (Oct 16), has incurred the ire of the country's academia by rejecting six out of 105 scholars to a government advisory panel.
All six had been openly critical of controversial security and anti-conspiracy policies pushed for by Mr Suga's predecessor Shinzo Abe, and their exclusion to the Science Council of Japan is seen as a high-handed, vindictive act by the new Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, universities have also slammed a government advisory asking them to mourn the late prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, for whom a state funeral was held on Saturday.
The twin moves have left a bitter taste, with Kyoto University professor Takeshi Komagome telling the Mainichi Shimbun: "The Suga Cabinet is trying to change Japan's regime into one where public education institutions must comply with state orders."
There has been immediate pushback. Public support fell by seven percentage points from last month to 55 per cent in an NHK poll last weekend. Nearly one in two respondents said that the decision on the council was unacceptable.
Small protests have broken out throughout the country. At least 370 academic societies and unions have criticised the rejection of the six scholars, while over 140,000 people have signed an online petition.
Nobel physics laureate Toshihide Masukawa condemned the rejections as an act that "destroys democracy and constitutionalism (and) is an insult to academia".
Director Hirokazu Kore-eda, who won the Cannes Palme d'Or for his film Shoplifters (2018), signed a statement criticising the act as a "violation of the freedom of expression and a clear challenge to the freedom of speech".
The Science Council of Japan, founded in 1949 and funded by taxpayers to the tune of one billion yen (S$12.9 million) annually, operates independently and makes policy recommendations to the government.
It comprises 210 members serving six-year terms, with half the group being up for replacement every three years.
The duty of appointing the scholars is left to the Prime Minister, but it has for long been a rubber-stamp process, with the government authorising names recommended by the council.
In 1983, Mr Nakasone, calling the process a "mere formality", said that the government would not interfere in the selection so as to "guarantee academic freedom and independence".
But Mr Suga has ripped up this playbook by questioning the blind following of precedence, and asking if it was even appropriate to use public funds for the organisation.
Media reports have pounced on the twists and turns of the enfolding saga. Mr Suga said the list he saw only consisted of 99 names, but could not answer when, who, or why the other six names were scrubbed out.
And while he insists that their rejections have "nothing to do" with their political beliefs, he has also said that it was necessary to secure a "comprehensive and bird's eye view of the council's activities".
Council President Takaaki Kajita, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2015, has called on the government to appoint the six scholars and, if not, to provide a clear explanation why they were rejected if indeed not for their political beliefs.
Kobe College professor emeritus Tatsuru Uchida told the Asahi Shimbun: "If administrations get involved with academic communities and gather 'yes-men' based on their loyalties, there will be fewer opposing voices, making it easier for politicians to manage them."
Still, the pro-government Sankei Shimbun has come to a staunch defence of the government, saying that it was natural for the outdated Science Council to be reformed.
The newspaper, in two editorials last week, slammed the body for rejecting military research. "As the security environment continues to deteriorate, the Science Council, which continues to deny defence research that can protect the lives and safety of the people, is detrimental to our national interests," it said.
Mocking the saga as being much ado about nothing, Sankei Shimbun argued: "Not being appointed to the Science Council does not render academics incapable of doing their own research, and as such there is no clampdown on academic freedoms."
Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano said it does not bode well for the Suga administration to be enveloped in controversy so soon after taking office.
"It will be nearly impossible for him to turn a new page quickly because he really has galvanised the whole academia," he told The Straits Times.
"The scholars are not going to back down and this will drag out for a long time... which could hurt him in elections due next year."