Strong Concerns About New Consumer Agency, Consumer Committee

Consumer Agency and Consumer Committee:

Launch amid Strong Concerns about Structure, Members and more

By Yamaura Yasuaki

Secretary General of of Consumers Union of Japan

Japan’s LDP-led government scrambled to launch the Consumer Agency and the Consumer Committee on September 1, 2009. It was clear that the launch was rushed to happen while Taro Aso was still prime minister, but the LDP-selected Sumita Hiroko, who was expected to be chairman, refused to participate after criticism. Then Hayashi Fumiko from car company Nissan Co. refused to take the helm in order to participate in the election instead. Hiwasa Nobuko from food maker Snow Brand Milk Products Co. who has previously served as secretary-general of the National Liaison Committee of Consumers’ Organizations (Shodanren) was chosen as a member while one other post is still vacant.

Why is the president of Asahi Breweries Ltd. a member of the Consumer Committee?!

Eventually, Matsumoto Tsuneo from the Hitotsubashi University Law School was elected as chairman of the Consumer Committee. Representing consumers, the members are Sano Mariko from Japan Housewives’ Association, Shimoyachi Fujiko from Japan Association of Consumer Affairs Specialists, Sakurai Keiko from Gakushuin University, Tajima Makoto from Jissen Women’s Educational University, journalist Kawada Keiko and lawyer Nakamura Masato from Japan Federation of Bar Associations. In addition, Ikeda Koichi, who is president of Asahi Breweries Ltd. was selected to represent the corporate sector.

This committee was nominated without any transparency by outgoing consumer minister Seiko Noda of the notoriously opaque LDP administration and the LDP-led Cabinet Office. The Consumer Committee is supposed to deal with matters involving consumer protection, but we cannot say from the consumer perspective that unexpectedly including representatives from the corporate sector will be seen as making the Consumer Committee independent nor will it enable the committee to give advice to the Prime Minister or the Consumer Agency.

Government councils transferred to the Consumer Committee

We are concerned about the structure of the Consumer Committee, and the fact that members are only supposed to serve for two years, and many of the members will participate on a part-time basis. How can members concentrate on the committee activities if they are also getting paid by the corporate sector?

A number of important councils will now be under the jurisdiction of the Consumer Committee, including the Research Committee for Agricultural and Forestry Standard (Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries), as well as standardization bodies for both food and pharmaceutical products. The 15 members of the Consumer Committee secretariat will be handling all the functions of these different bodies, in addition to special task force committees. We strongly question if this will be possible.

The staff members at the Consumer Agency are all bureaucrats from other ministries

We are critical of the choice of former Cabinet Office Vice Minister Uchida Shunichi as the chief of the new Consumer Affairs Agency. Almost all of the top bureaucrats that the LDP-led government selected for the Consumer Agency come from other government ministries or agencies, such as the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The only exception with experience from the non-profit sector is Sayuri Kato from the National Federation of Regional Women’s Organizations.

A lot of work will now be centralized and moved to the Consumer Agency, which is supposed to operate according to a consumer-oriented policy. This will range from food labelling and Japan Agriculture Standard certification to consumer product safety, email identification issues or cases that fall under the travel agency legislation. Consumer information issues will also be managed in a more uniform way. Even unique safety problems, such as the issues related to konnyaku-jelly which have no applicable law, will be handled by the Consumer Agency.

Under the present circumstances, we cannot be certain of how the Consumer Agency is supposed to fulfill its role as a “control tower” for consumer issues, as there is no actually workforce. Also, the so-called Consumer Hotline did not start as scheduled on September 1.

When both the Consumer Agency and the Consumer Committee have such a large number of problems, would it not be best to immediately take steps to review and reconsider their functioning?