Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's rejection of six academics from sitting on a government advisory panel goes against the aim of past reviews that called for the body's "comprehensive and overarching" role, several experts who were involved in the process said Sunday.
The experts said they did not anticipate the government's intervention in picking members for the Science Council of Japan, raising questions about the validity of Suga's latest decision despite his insistence that he took into consideration the outcome of expert discussions in 2003 and 2015 on the council's role.
"We thought it was only natural for the government to appoint members as recommended (by the council) so we did not discuss (the possibility of rejection)," said Kazuo Oike, president of the Kyoto University of the Arts who led the 2015 reviews with other pundits in a panel under the Cabinet Office.
"The government's failure to automatically appoint (the six nominees) this time violates law. The government can never control the process," Oike told Kyodo News.
In the face of growing criticism against what has been perceived as an attack on academic freedom, Suga has not explained in detail why the six who were critical of his predecessor Shinzo Abe were blocked from joining the council.
He has said the decision was made to ensure the council will play "a comprehensive and overarching" role, the same wording used in a 2003 report compiled by the review panel.
Suga's rejection of the six out of 105 nominees apparently ran counter to the experts' emphasis on ensuring the independence of the 210-member council, which is tasked with making policy recommendations independently from the government.
Since the current system of member appointments, based on a recommendation by the council, was adopted in 2004, no nominee had been denied until Suga turned down the six earlier this month.
The prime minister has seen a fall in the approval rate for his Cabinet roughly a month after taking office, with public dissatisfaction growing over the handling of the personnel issue.
According to some of the experts involved in the review, how to select members was a major point of discussion but they did not anticipate the government would step in.
In another review conducted in 2015, a separate experts' panel under the Cabinet Office said it is desirable to pick members with "overarching" views that go beyond their areas of expertise.
Established in 1949, the Science Council of Japan represents the Japanese science community and covers the fields of social science, humanities and natural and life sciences, with half of its membership changing every three years.