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Editorial: Extending retirement age for senior Japan prosecutor could damage trust

In an unprecedented move, the government has decided to extend the tenure of Japan's No. 2 prosecutor by six months after he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 63 on Feb. 7.

The Public Prosecutor's Office Act sets the mandatory retirement age for prosecutors at 63 and that for the prosecutor-general, Japan's top prosecutor, at 65. Therefore, the latest move has opened the way for Hiromu Kurokawa, superintending prosecutor at the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office, to replace current prosecutor-general Nobuo Inada.

The Public Prosecutor's Office Act does not provide for the extension of the mandatory retirement age for prosecutors. Some legislators from the opposition camp as well as experts have criticized the government's move as "circumvention of the law," and the matter was brought up in a House of Representatives Budget Committee session on Feb. 10.

While belonging to the executive branch of the government, prosecutors' offices are empowered to conduct investigations into all criminal cases, and are the sole organizations that have the authority to indict suspects. In other words, prosecutors' offices are a fort to ensure fairness and justice in society. In particular, the public places high expectations on prosecutors' role of exposing corruption cases involving the political and bureaucratic sectors.

This is precisely why prosecutors' offices are required to keep a certain distance from those in power. Although the Cabinet is authorized to appoint the prosecutor-general and superintendent prosecutors, the administrative branch has heretofore respected the prosecution authority's personnel reshuffle decisions.

The prosecution authority had apparently intended to name Makoto Hayashi, superintending prosecutor at the Nagoya High Public Prosecutors Office, to replace Kurokawa with a view to appointing Hayashi as the next prosecutor-general. However, the government's latest decision has raised the possibility that Kurokawa will assume the top prosecutor's post.

Kurokawa is seen as being close to the prime minister's office since he served as deputy vice minister and vice minister of justice for seven years. At the time, he coordinated views between the prime minister's office and other ministries and agencies as well as with the Diet in submitting bills to the legislature and other decisions.

The latest decision to extend Kurokawa's mandatory tenure could arouse suspicions among members of the general public that prosecutors may surmise the administration's intentions in making decisions over prosecution, thereby damaging the public's trust.

In extending Kurokawa's tenure, the government applied the National Public Service Act, which allows the government to extend the mandatory retirement age of a national government official by not more than one year if the retirement of the official could seriously hinder the execution of public duties. Justice Minister Masako Mori explained in the Diet that the move was made "to respond to investigations and trials of serious, complex and difficult incidents."

However, legal experts have pointed out that the Public Prosecutor's Office Act does not provide for an extension of the retirement age of prosecutors because prosecutors have strong authority. The government's application of the National Public Service Act's exceptional provision for ordinary public servants is far from convincing. The reason for allowing Kurokawa to stay on for six more months after his retirement age also lacks persuasiveness.

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also broke the customary practice of appointing an insider to head the Cabinet Legislation Bureau and picked a Foreign Ministry bureaucrat, who generally shares views on security legislation with the prime minister, as its director. Critics have pointed out that bureaucrats have come to surmise the Abe administration's intensions because the government has taken control over the appointment of top officials through the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs.

If the appointments of top prosecution officials, who are required to be politically neutral, are made at the administration's convenience, it could cause a serious problem in the future.

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