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With public criticism growing, Japan's PM Abe driven to shelve controversial bill

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to reporters after giving up on passing a bill to revise the Public Prosecutor's Office Act during the current Diet session, at the prime minister's office in Tokyo, on May 18, 2020. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- Public criticism reaching an especially intense crescendo online has compelled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to temporarily shelve a controversial Public Prosecutor's Office Act amendment that would have allowed the administration to extend prosecutors' retirement age. The revision attempt even led to retired prosecutors to object vociferously, catching the Abe administration off-guard.

Prime Minister Abe met with Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and other ruling party figures on May 18 and told them he intended to give up passing the bill by the end of the current Diet session, saying, "It's important to listen sincerely to the voice of the public."

A veteran of Abe's LDP told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I think the heightened public concern came as a surprise (to the prime minister)."

Responding to opposition criticism, Abe had maintained that even if the law was revised, "the Cabinet would not meddle arbitrarily in (prosecutorial) personnel affairs, and criticism that one of the motivations (for the revision) is for me to dodge accusations completely misses the point."

However, according to a former Cabinet member, with objections coming also from within the LDP, the prime minister judged in the end that forcing the bill to a vote would be too difficult.

One senior LDP member commented, "There was a string of word association games, and that caused misunderstanding," but it was the prime minister's office itself that sowed the seeds of doubt over the potential for arbitrary and self-serving personnel decisions.

On Jan. 31, 2020, the Abe Cabinet approved extending the retirement age of Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office Superintending Prosecutor Hiromu Kurokawa, 63, who was originally scheduled to step down on Feb. 7, for half a year. Under current law, the retirement age of superintending prosecutors is 63, and there is no provision to extend that. The Abe administration went out of its way to extend Kurokawa's retirement age by changing the Japanese government's interpretation of the National Public Service Act, held consistently since 1981, that retirement age extension provisions did not apply to prosecutors. This led to speculation that the unprecedented extension was a strategic move to elevate Kurokawa to prosecutor-general, the highest prosecutor position in the land.

A little over a month later, the government submitted the bill to revise the Public Prosecutor's Office Act to the Diet. The revised law -- even if the bill had passed the Diet -- would not retroactively legitimize Kurokawa's case, since it would not come into effect until April 2022. However, it sparked criticism nevertheless as it betrayed the prime minister's office's intention to legitimize the Cabinet's decision to extend a prosecutor's retirement age after the fact.

Meanwhile, a senior ruling party official commented, "It was the prime minister's office that decided to shelve the bill, but it's not clear if it was the prime minister himself, the chief Cabinet secretary or others close to the prime minister who led the decision."

Among officials in the prime minister's office, Kurokawa is said to be particularly close to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. Abe said during a May 15 online interview program, "I have never met Mr. Kurokawa alone," denying personal ties to the senior prosecutor. As public ire against the revision bill swelled, figures close to the prime minister cooled on the idea, saying that the revision was "unnecessary in the first place," and it's believed that they overrode Suga.

The latest development has left the relationship between the prime minister's office and LDP strained. A source close to the ruling party told the Mainichi, "It's like the PM's office turned its back on the party that worked to get the bill to a vote based on that same office's intentions. The Abe Cabinet's unifying power has been compromised."

The government is set to push the revision legislation back to the extraordinary Diet session set to convene in fall, but it is facing dimming prospects it will ever be passed.

(Japanese original by Tadashi Sano and Shu Hatakeyama, Political News Department)

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