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Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2009

Consumer Affairs boss underscores new, yet tenuous, role


Staff writer

The Consumer Affairs Agency must play the vital role of being the only government organ tasked with serving consumers, but in the process it might help bureaucrats improve their public image, the director general of the new body said.

News photo
Shunichi Uchida SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

The agency debuted last week, consolidating various government sections and departments to deal with consumer-related issues, including fraud, product safety and food mislabeling.

"Bureaucrats up to now have not looked directly at the people" and their lives on an individual basis, Shunichi Uchida, former vice minister of the Cabinet Office, said in a group interview with media organizations.

Bureaucrats were responsible for the people's lives as a whole, working with statistics and advice from experts, Uchida said.

The new agency's role is to listen to the opinions of consumers and look after their well-being, Uchida said.

"In that sense, the Consumer Affairs Agency is an organization that will face people with sincerity and look at their lives from their standpoint. So I think this agency can enable bureaucrats to return to their original mission," which is to serve the people, Uchida said.

Previously, consumer-related affairs were handled by different ministries and agencies, depending on the issue involved, or by internal sections within ministries. This resulted in slow and often inconsistent government actions that led to harsh public criticism.

Government entities such as the transport and health ministries have been tasked with protecting consumers but were also involved in the effort to develop industries.

Despite Uchida's pledged commitment to his new job, his fate as head of the new agency seems up in the air.

The Democratic Part of Japan, which won an overwhelming victory in the Aug. 30 Lower House election, said last week it was unhappy about Uchida's appointment by the Cabinet led by Prime Minister Taro Aso, whose long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party went down to defeat.

Many DPJ members oppose Uchida's appointment because he is a former top bureaucrat. The party promised in the campaign to end the way the bureaucracy effectively controls the government.

DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama hinted that when his party takes power next week, the personnel makeup of the new agency may face a rethink.

During the interview, Uchida said agency officials will explain to the DPJ-led Cabinet the measures they are taking or plan to take to protect consumers and wait for orders from the Cabinet.

The agency was initially slated to open in October or later in 2009, but Aso moved the debut to September.

As a result, the agency started out ill-prepared. For instance, it was unable to offer a unified phone number for advisory services on consumer-related issues like product safety, fraud and mislabeled food products.



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