There are rapidly growing voices of protest in Japan against a bill to revise the Public Prosecutor’s Office Act, which is aimed at extending the retirement age of prosecutors. People from various quarters are opposing the bill due to concerns that it could allow the Cabinet to arbitrarily interfere in the personnel affairs of prosecutors, among numerous other problems.
The epitome of the public outcry is the heavily trending Twitter hashtag which translates to “We protest against the bill to revise the Public Prosecutor’s Office Act,” with the number of posts containing it and similar content reaching 4.5 million late last week.
However, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not facing up to the voices of opposition and concerns over the proposed amendment.
A question-and-answer session over the bill was held in the House of Representatives Committee on Cabinet on May 13 without Justice Minister Masako Mori, who should be attending to answer questions under normal circumstances. The bill is under deliberation together with a proposed legislation to raise the mandatory retirement age of national public servants.
During the committee session, Ryota Takeda, minister in charge of civil service reform, repeatedly stated, “Essentially, the question should be answered by the Ministry of Justice,” leaving the Q&A session to be suspended time and again. In spite of such a sheer lack of discussion, is the government really going to put the bill to vote in the committee later this week?
The primary problem of the bill to revise the prosecutor’s office law is a special provision that allows the prosecutor-general and others to retain their posts for up to three years after reaching their mandatory retirement age if the government judges that it could otherwise cause a significant disruption to the operation of public duties.
This special provision was not included in the original version of the bill when it was drafted by the Justice Ministry last fall.
At a Cabinet meeting in January, the government decided to extend the tenure of Hiromu Kurokawa, superintending prosecutor at the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office, who was approaching his retirement age. The decision drew fire as an extralegal means to open the way for Kurokawa to be appointed as prosecutor-general. Later on, the government explained that it had changed its interpretation of the law prior to the Cabinet meeting.
As the amendment bill in question is designed to come into effect in April 2022, the government maintains that it has nothing to do with the fate of Kurokawa. However, the bill, once passed into law, will give the stamp of approval to the series of changes in the government’s legal interpretation and the Cabinet decision in January this year. Furthermore, the prosecutor-general can be allowed to stay on until age 68 at the intention of the administration.
While the Public Prosecutors Office is an administrative body, it holds investigative authority and virtually monopolizes authority to indict. The agency has to maintain its political independence all the more because of its strong power. It is unacceptable for the Cabinet to effectively hold full command of personnel affairs for senior officials at the Public Prosecutors Office through the special provision.
As the world is plagued by the novel coronavirus pandemic, the ruling and opposition parties are urged to cooperate in responding to the crisis. The explosive spread of the Twitter hashtag opposing the bill in Japan seems to reflect the public’s anger and questions over the government’s push to pass the bill that is certain to trigger political conflict by taking advantage of the confusion over the coronavirus.
The opposition bloc has submitted an amendment to delete the special provision from the bill. If the government is to stick to an early passage of the bill, it can simply do so by deleting the special provision. The ruling camp must not railroad the bill by resorting to its majority in the legislature.