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Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009

New consumer agency debuts

DPJ chief quick to oppose Aso-picked bureaucrat boss, pricey digs


Staff writer

The government Tuesday inaugurated the Consumer Affairs Agency, a consolidated entity expected to better serve the public by bypassing the sectionalism of bureaucrats, but its new civil servant boss quickly drew fire from the Democratic Party of Japan.

Created by the departing Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito government, the agency is expected to function as a key hub that will deal quickly and in a unified manner with consumer-related issues, including product safety problems and fraud.

Up to now, problems pertaining to consumers were handled by various ministries and agencies, and by their internal sections, resulting in slow and often inconsistent measures that have drawn public criticism.

Although much hope has been pinned on the new agency, its officials have been confronted with immediate challenges, including how to deal with the new DPJ-led administration that will come to power later this month.

The DPJ has said a top elite bureaucrat should not have been appointed to head the agency. The party has vowed to reform the central bureaucracy to the benefit of ordinary people.

Shunichi Uchida, former vice minister of the Cabinet Office, was appointed the agency's chief last month.

"Why did personnel affairs have to be decided in such a rushed manner?" DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama asked Monday during a news conference. "When we take control of the government, we could give it better form."

The agency was initially slated to open in October but Prime Minister Taro Aso reportedly moved the debut to September.

Hatoyama had said the DPJ may cancel Uchida's appointment and pick someone else when it takes power. The DPJ also wants the agency to operate from a less-expensive location than the current pricey high-rise office near the Diet building.

The Consumer Commission was also launched Tuesday. Made up of fewer than 10 representatives from the private sector, the commission is expected to monitor the agency and have the authority to submit recommendations to the prime minister.

The agency was first pitched in 2008 by Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda after various food and other consumer safety problems arose.

Consumers criticized the government for failing to prevent a raft of problems, including suffocation deaths from "konnyaku" jelly, food poisoning scares from tainted imports, carbon monoxide poisonings linked to Paloma Industries Ltd.'s and other manufacturers' gas-powered water heaters, and the distribution of tainted rice by Mikasa Foods.

"Government measures to protect consumers have not been been managed from the consumers' perspective . . . the launch (of the agency) has significant meaning," said Hisa Anan, secretary general of National Liaison Committee of Consumer Organizations.

Anan pointed out that one main task for the agency is to improve government services in rural areas.

She said rural areas do not have enough administrative personnel to deal with consumer-related issues or workers familiar with rural problems. It is thus essential to increase central government offices and experts to protect consumers, she said.

Anan meanwhile said she is concerned that the agency might start off on the wrong foot due to the political disarray over its personnel affairs.



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