TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, under fire for rejecting six scholars for membership of a science advisory panel, defended the move on Monday amid growing criticism that it violated the constitution's principle of academic freedom.
Suga, who took office last month after Shinzo Abe resigned, has enjoyed high support among voters who approve of his promises to deregulate, reduce mobile phone rates and digitalise services as he tries to revive the economy and rein in COVID-19.
But his rejection of the six candidates - some of them known for past criticism of Abe's policies - could stoke a furore that threatens his honeymoon with voters.
At issue is the influential 210-strong Science Council of Japan (SCJ), set up after World War Two to provide independent scientific input for policy.
The six were among 105 scholars recommended for membership of the panel, which chooses half its members every three years.
Policies they criticised include Abe's reinterpretation of Japan's pacifist constitution to let troops fight overseas in a historic shift for defence policy, and a 2013 state secrets act that sparked concern over media freedom.
Opposition parties have attacked the decision and demanded a public explanation from Suga, critics have taken to social media and a Change.org petition urging the appointments drew more than 100,000 signatures by Monday evening.
In a group interview with domestic media, Suga repeated that the decision was legitimate, adding that the Council received annual public funds of 1 billion yen ($9.47 million).
He declined to comment on individual cases but said the decision was "totally unrelated to academic freedom," and had nothing to do with scholars' positions on government-backed legislation.
Since 1983, the prime minister has appointed members based on SCJ recommendations, and there is no precedent for rejecting them, political analysts said.
"The constitution of Japan has a specific article just for academic freedom, which is ... a direct result of wartime control of academia and science by the militarists," said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano.
The council, which tangled with Abe's government in 2017 after taking a sceptical stance to academic research with potential military uses, has demanded that Suga explain his decision and appoint the six.
"I don't know at all why I was not appointed," one of the six, Masanori Okada, a professor at Waseda Law School, told Reuters. "What I wrote (in the past) was that the government should act in accordance with the law... That is only natural."
Some conservatives have blasted the SCJ for what they call its China-friendly stance. Okada denied any special relationship with Beijing.
Another of the spurned scholars, Shigeki Uno, a political science professor of the University of Tokyo, declined direct comment on the rejection, but stressed the importance of free speech.
"The greatest strength of a democratic society is its ability to be open to criticism and constantly modify itself," he said in a statement.
(Editing by Gerry Doyle and Clarence Fernandez)
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