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Japan minister retracts comment accusing prosecutors of fleeing post-disaster Fukushima

Justice Minister Masako Mori apologizes in front of reporters for her comment after meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the prime minister's office, on March 12, 2020. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Japan's justice minister has retracted her comment in which she accused public prosecutors of fleeing from a Fukushima Prefecture city in the wake of the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake before evacuation orders were issued, saying that the remark was "inappropriate."

Justice Minister Masako Mori made the comment during a House of Councillors Budget Committee meeting on March 9. When asked about what changes in social conditions required reinterpreting a legal provision to approve an extension of public prosecutors' tenure, Mori told the Diet, "Prosecutors fled from the Fukushima Prefecture city of Iwaki in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake even though people still hadn't evacuated. They also released more than 10 people who had been taken into custody (by the prosecutors' office) at the time without a reason," as an example of "changes in social conditions." She said, "I believe we'll face great confusion in times of a disaster (if prosecutors leave their office)."

Mori has been the target of the opposition camp's criticism over the government's move to reinterpret legislation to extend a senior public prosecutor's tenure.

In response to her remark, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Mori on March 12 and served her a strong warning. Abe later told reporters, "I want her to fulfil her duty with a better sense of responsibility," indicating that he would keep her as justice minister. Mori also told the press after the meeting, "I've reflected on what I said and realized that it was utterly inappropriate. I sincerely apologize."

During a House of Representatives Judicial Affairs Committee session on March 11, prosecutor-turned legislator Shiori Yamao of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) recited Mori's earlier comment, and asked the lawyer-turned justice minister, "Was your comment (based on) a fact?" Mori replied, "Yes, that is a fact." She then added, "I mentioned it as an example, because I was thinking, 'Do we not allow prosecutors to extend their term even by one day?'"

Justice Minister Masako Mori speaks during a House of Councillors Budget Committee meeting at the Diet in Tokyo, on March 11, 2020. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

With an obviously surprised look, Yamao asked, "Wait, so is it a fact that prosecutors were the first ones to flee Iwaki? Or that they fled after releasing those who were in custody?" Mori replied, "The prosecutors, who are national public servants, left the Fukushima District Public Prosecutors Office Iwaki branch and moved to the area where the office's Koriyama branch was located, when evacuation orders for residents had yet to be issued. There were news reports at the time that more than 10 people who were in custody were released (when the prosecutors left Iwaki)."

Yamao pressed the justice minister, asking her, "Those remarks, that prosecutors were the first ones to flee and that they released more than 10 people without a reason, do they represent the government's view (on what happened)?" Mori then said, "The remarks I made during the (March 9 upper house) Budget Committee were my personal opinion at the time."

Following Mori's "personal opinion" comment, which she spoke from the position of a justice minister at the Diet, an uproar erupted at the Judicial Affairs Committee meeting. After the committee's chairperson Midori Matsushima requested Mori to sort out her answers and speak one more time, the justice minister said, "I spoke of my take at the time (of the quake disaster) that prosecutors fled and they released those in custody without a reason. The part when I said they 'fled' and they released people 'without a reason' is my opinion." Yamao, seemingly appalled by Mori's answers, then requested that the meeting be suspended.

Mori ended up retracting her March 9 comment during an upper house budget committee session on the afternoon of March 11, saying that it was "inappropriate that a justice minister provided such answers without stating in advance that they were their 'personal opinion.'"

On Mori's retraction of her comment, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference on March 11 that the government "is not aware (of prosecutors leaving Iwaki before the evacuation orders and releasing those in custody without a reason)." He then said, "I would like Cabinet members to deal with matters in the Diet in a serious manner." Some members in the ruling coalition have also voiced frustration with Mori, saying that she "doesn't do her homework."

Meanwhile, Diet affairs chiefs of the CDP and other opposition parties held a meeting on the morning of March 12 and decided that they would refuse to participate in Diet deliberations, saying that Mori "made a comment that belittled prosecutors."

(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)

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