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Japan gov't influence to haunt prosecutor appointments after gambling, retirement scandals

Chief of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office, Hiromu Kurokawa, gets into a car by his home in Tokyo on May 21, 2020. (Mainichi/Takehiko Onishi)

TOKYO -- The chaos that was spawned by the attempt to extend the retirement age of 63-year-old Hiromu Kurokawa, head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office, has devolved into a shelving of the bill to raise the retirement age for high-ranking prosecutors and the resignation of Kurokawa himself due to a scandal.

Not only will this lead to problems in the future, it will inflict some serious damage to the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which was pushing the bill, and prosecutors.

It was at 5:30 p.m. on May 21 at the prime minister's office that Justice Minister Masako Mori disclosed to reporters that she had accepted Kurokawa's resignation. "I was the one who petitioned for the extension of Superintending Prosecutor Kurokawa's tenure to the Cabinet," she said. "I am keenly aware of my responsibility."

Shortly prior to Mori's revelation to the press, Kurokawa had left his home in Tokyo, which was surrounded by around 30 members of the media, gotten into a car without saying a word, and entered the Public Prosecutor's Office.

The Public Prosecutor's Office Act stipulates prosecutors' retirement ages as 65 for the prosecutor-general and 63 for all other prosecutors. In recent years, there has been a practice of prosecutors-general changing after approximately two years, and it had been expected that 63-year-old Prosecutor-General Nobuo Inada, who would be reaching his retirement age in August 2021, would be retiring this coming summer.

Kurokawa, meanwhile, reached his retirement age earlier, on Feb. 7, 2020. Justice and prosecution authorities had initially envisioned having 62-year-old Makoto Hayashi, the superintending prosecutor at the Nagoya High Public Prosecutors Office, whose retirement would be in July, to succeed Inada as prosecutor-general. According to those involved in the case, last fall they proposed to the prime minister's office the idea of putting Hayashi in Kurokawa's position of superintending prosecutor in Tokyo after Kurokawa retired.

The prime minister's office had been pushing for Kurokawa to become the next prosecutor-general. At the end of 2019, it had come up with a scenario in which Inada would be forced to resign, and Kurokawa would succeed him before he reaches his retirement age. A source close to Prime Minister Abe recalled, "At the time, it was believed that Inada would give up his position to Kurokawa."

It is said that in accordance with the wishes of the prime minister's office, justice and prosecution authorities approached Inada about resigning early. Inada, however, refused.

It is believed that Inada wanted to make his participation in the 14th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice that was to be held in Japan in April for the first time in half a century (though ultimately postponed due to the novel coronavirus), a major highlight of his tenure. Furthermore, a senior official from the prime minister's office pointed to the fact that in January the Hiroshima District Public Prosecutors Office began a criminal investigation into Anri Kawai, a House of Councillors lawmaker and the wife of former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai, on suspicion of violating the Public Offices Election Act during the 2019 House of Councillors election, and said, "The Justice Ministry sought that Inada stay in his post on the grounds that 'there was a need for him to continue leading the investigation, making it difficult to replace the prosecutor-general before Kurokawa's retirement age.'"

So now there was the prime minister's office, which was pushing for Kurokawa to become the prosecutor-general, and the justice and prosecution authorities who wanted Inada to stay in his position. The Justice Ministry is said to have come up with a compromise deal to first extend Kurokawa's retirement age. The government passed this in a Cabinet meeting in January. The extension can be said to be in accordance with the prime minister's office's wishes.

Why was the prime minister's office so hung up on Kurokawa? A government source disclosed that Kurokawa had deep ties to the political world, and was highly adept in his coordinating abilities, and therefore "easy to use." In September 2016, the prime minister's office appointed Kurokawa to the post of vice-minister of justice to succeed Inada, instead of Hayashi, who had been highly anticipated within the Justice Ministry to be Inada's successor. Later, when then Director-General of the ministry's Criminal Affairs Bureau Hayashi clashed with then Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa over the ministry's reorganization, the prime minister's office took Kamikawa's side and transferred Hayashi in January 2018 to become the superintending prosecutor at the Nagoya High Public Prosecutors Office. This offered a chance for the prime minister's office to become even closer with Kurokawa, and lay down the rails for him to become the future prosecutor-general.

But when it became closer to "go" time, things began to fall apart. A proposed amendment to the Public Prosecutor's Office Act that would allow the Cabinet to decide on the extension of retirement ages of prosecutors-general and other prosecutors was criticized as "a way to justify Kurokawa's retirement extension after the fact." Objections against the bill by celebrities and other famous people online spread widely online. Former prosecutors also raised voices against the bill, and the government and the ruling parties were forced into giving up the passage of the bill during the current session of the Diet.

Throughout the fiasco, Kurokawa was mocked as the prime minister's office's "keeper" or "guard," and even justice and prosecution authorities began to say that "with a top prosecutor whose closeness to the prime minister's office has been seen as problematic, it will not be possible to maintain confidence in prosecutors." It was while this debate was going on that Kurokawa's scandal -- that he had been playing mahjong for money during coronavirus quarantine in Japan -- was reported. One senior prosecutor said, "He caused a lot of trouble to the public. He must not forget his position in society." Just a night after the scandal broke, Kurokawa was forced into resignation.

The prime minister's office appears to have asked the justice and prosecution authorities to have Inada take the fall for the confusion that has been wrought. This latest hoopla is bound to haunt future prosecution appointments.

(Japanese original by Jintaro Chikamatsu and Kenji Tatsumi, City News Department, and Kazuhiko Hori, Political News Department)

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