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PM Abe slammed for attempt to blur prosecutor retirement age U-turn with rhetorical shift

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen answering questions at a meeting of the House of Representatives committee for health, labor and welfare, at the Diet in Tokyo on May 22, 2020. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took heavy fire from opposition lawmakers on May 22 as he attempted to reset the narrative for the reasons behind delaying a controversial bill to allow public prosecutors' retirement age to be raised by up to three years, to 65.

The revision to the Public Prosecutor's Office Act was one of a package of 10 revisions to the National Public Service Act and related legislation. The bill was delayed after a furious public outcry, driven by suspicions that the administration was seeking political influence over public prosecutor personnel matters, and that the bill was designed to retroactively legitimize the special retirement age extension given by the Cabinet to former Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office chief Hiromu Kurokawa, 63.

Kurokawa resigned on May 22 after admitting to playing mahjong for money during the novel coronavirus state of emergency.

However, in remarks at a May 22 meeting of the House of Representatives committee for health, labor and welfare, Abe stated that the government had rethought getting the revisions package passed during the current Diet session due to "criticism including that the public sector is going too far ahead of the private sector, and that it may be too soon to extend (the retirement age) to 65 before private firms do."

He also cited the "worsening state of employment due to the novel coronavirus" among his justifications for the move.

But opposition members questioned the lack of consistency in the prime minister's remarks, noting that he had previously insisted the bill was essential to prepare for a society in which more and more Japanese people are living to 100. Responding to questions in the Diet, Abe had stressed, "One purpose is to make maximal use of the plentiful experience, knowledge and other traits older workers have."

But on May 22, his line shifted. Instead, he said he understood that circumstances have been in flux since the bill was proposed, saying, "I accept there has been some harsh criticism of the bill to revise the Public Prosecutor's Office Act, but at the same time the spread of infections from the novel coronavirus has made things harder in society." He continued, "There are concerns wage standards in the private sector will be outpaced. There is also debate as to whether we can obtain public understanding if public employees are prioritized in having their retirement age extended." His remarks suggested that raising the retirement age for national civil servants could be postponed, too.

Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Chinami Nishimura pointed out at the May 22 lower house committee meeting, "Even though the proposed revisions to the Public Prosecutor's Office Act were the ones being criticized, focus is being diverted with statements like 'the proposed revisions to the National Public Service Act have been amassing public criticism.'"

The prime minister responded, "Private companies are suffering due to the novel coronavirus, and it's a fact that some have been asking whether discussions (on the bill) can proceed as they have." But even within the ruling LDP, some have expressed their frustration with the changes. A senior official told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Surely all the public sees is that we wavered."

On the subject of Kurokawa's resignation, Abe said, "It was authorized by the Cabinet as a personnel proposal from the Ministry of Justice and the Public Prosecutors Office. I take responsibility for it, and wish to accept the criticism seriously." But he indicated that he saw no issue with raising the retirement age of public prosecutors.

(Japanese original by Jun Aoki and Keiko Takahashi, Political News Department)

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