Data tampering at transport ministry continued after Board of Audit highlighted issue in 2019

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks at the House of Councillors Budget Committee on Thursday.

Data tampering at the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry that came to light this week continued for more than a year after the problem was identified by the Board of Audit in 2019, and neither the ministry nor the Board of Audit reported the issue.

The transport ministry compiles data via prefectures from about 12,000 construction firms on orders for domestic construction projects from public and private entities.

The data is one of the core statistics used in calculating Japan’s gross domestic product every month.

The ministry instructed prefectures to log the cumulative total as the figure for the latest month if they received several months’ worth of data from companies at once, instead of retroactively reflecting the figures in the statistics for the corresponding months.

In the months when companies did not submit data, estimated figures calculated from the results of other companies were also logged, so the ministry’s statistics included both the estimated and cumulative figures.

Following the discovery in 2018 of a problem with labor statistics compiled by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the government compiled a report in December 2019 calling for errors in ministry statistics to be corrected and made public.

From January 2020, the transport ministry asked prefectures to stop including cumulative figures in the data but the ministry continued to log the data by itself until March 2021.

“A conventional data collection method was used for the purpose of comparison with the previous year,” said transport minister Tetsuo Saito at the House of Councillors Budget Committee on Thursday. “Statistically, a comparison with the previous year is also significant.”

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also said there had been no intention of covering up an error.

However, the ministry did not start releasing statistics using a revised collection method until April 2021.

The Board of Audit highlighted the problem of logging cumulative data in a report issued in September, but there was no mention of the possibility of duplicated data in the statistics or the ministry’s involvement in data tampering.

“We had sufficient reason to highlight that the statistics do not reflect the actual figures at the point when cumulative data is added,” a Board of Audit official said. “Therefore, we didn’t have to bother clarifying that the data had been logged twice.”

During deliberations on the fiscal 2021 supplementary budget on Thursday, the prime minister said an independent panel would be established to review the ministry’s data.

“A third-party panel of former prosecutors and lawyers will examine the circumstances and causes and compile a report within a month,” Kishida said, adding that the matter would also be discussed at the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry’s Statistics Commission.

“We must prevent a recurrence of similar incidents and restore trust,” he said.

Regarding the impact of the data tampering on the nation’s GDP statistics, economic revitalization minister Daishiro Yamagiwa said, “If there was [an impact] it would be negligible.”