Japan government ditches Epstein associate as head of digital agency

Japanese politics & policy updates

Japan’s prime minister has been forced to make a U-turn just as his government was about to confirm the appointment of an associate of the late paedophile Jeffrey Epstein to lead the country’s first digital agency, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.

The reversal leaves a critical position vacant just two weeks before the launch of an organisation that was meant to spearhead one of Yoshihide Suga’s biggest policy initiatives to address Japan’s digital deficiencies.

The choice of Joi Ito, the Harvard-educated technology entrepreneur, has been controversial since his potential appointment was leaked to the media in early August.

In 2019, Ito stepped down as head of the prestigious Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology following allegations that he had concealed funding from Epstein, the financier who died by suicide while awaiting trial on charges of sex trafficking of underage girls.

Ito has expressed regret for taking money for the lab from Epstein and for allowing him to invest in several funds that the MIT executive used to back tech start-ups outside of the university. 

On Thursday, Ito declined to comment on being dropped as head of the organisation but told the Financial Times: “I fully support the aims of the digital agency and the urgent need to digitalise Japan for all its citizens.” 

An official at Japan’s cabinet secretariat declined to comment, saying no formal decision has been made on the appointment of the digital agency head. 

People with knowledge of the discussions said the decision to appoint Ito was a signal of how difficult it had been to find the expertise in Japan required to make the new agency effective. The same people said that a role would probably be found for Ito despite the reversal of plans to make him head of the agency.

One of the people added that Ito had been subjected to an extensive screening process that involved both Japanese and US agencies.

The person added that if politicians were now claiming that they were unaware of certain aspects of Ito’s background, that was untrue. The eleventh hour decision to drop Ito was a signal that members of the Suga administration were “running for cover” during a period of exceptional political sensitivity, the person said.

“Suga has looked at his polling, and cannot afford even the slightest scandal at this point, so they just go for the quick fix,” the person said.

Suga’s approval rating has fallen below 30 per cent in recent polls owing to his handling of the pandemic. The number of new Covid-19 cases approached 24,000 on Wednesday.

The sharp rise in infections coincided with the hosting of the Tokyo Olympics. The international event ended this month without providing Suga with a boost to his approval rating.

The turmoil surrounding Ito’s appointment is just one of many issues that have surfaced as the government prepares to launch the digital agency on September 1. 

The digital push has been an important pillar of Suga’s policy after the pandemic exposed Japan’s low-tech handling of data and paperwork using fax machines and hanko seals, traditionally used to certify documents.

But efforts to digitise have faced bureaucratic resistance while the credibility of the country’s first digital minister has suffered following a series of gaffes and a tax scandal.

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