Yanagida instructed top prosecutor to rectify Osaka tampering scandal

Kyodo News

Former Justice Minister Minoru Yanagida asked Japan’s chief prosecutor to “show justice” in the evidence-tampering scandal that rocked the reputation of Osaka’s prosecutors, he said.

In a recent interview, Yanagida said he issued an “instruction” in connection with the scandal three times while in office in what could’ve been an attempt to exercise his authority over chief prosecutors.

Yanagida said he made the first of the three remarks when Hiroshi Obayashi, then prosecutor general of the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office, visited him on Sept. 21, just hours after a prosecutor in Osaka admitted altering data seized during an investigation into the postal discount system for handicapped people.

“I told him, ‘I believe in you all, so I want you to show justice,’ ” said Yanagida, who had become justice minister just three days earlier in a Cabinet reshuffle called by Prime Minister Naoto Kan. He resigned in November after getting into trouble for a quip that seemed to make light of his job.

The prosecutor in Osaka was later indicted, which was followed by the indictments in October of two more senior prosecutors at the Osaka District Public Prosecutor’s Office who were suspected of tampering with data on a floppy disk confiscated as evidence in the probe into alleged abuse of the postal discount system involving health ministry officials.

Yanagida said he called Obayashi to his office on Oct. 21, the day when the latter two prosecutors were indicted.

“I said I wanted him to lead the probe in earnest to figure out what actually happened,” Yanagida said, adding that he called Obayashi again a month later on Nov. 21, the day before he stepped down.

He said he did not meet Obayashi on that day but refused to reveal why they did not meet.

On the following day, however, Obayashi paid him a visit while the Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker was spending his last day in office as justice minister. The two spoke, he said.

“On the day I stepped down, I told him that I wanted him to do what he could (over the scandal) swiftly and that he was responsible for carrying out the reforms (regarding the prosecutors),” Yanagida said.

Obayashi resigned in December. Yanagida said he didn’t think Obayashi needed to leave and said he was told by the Justice Ministry that Obayashi intended to stand down.

Yanagida’s remarks provide a rare glimpse into the relationship shared between the justice minister and the nation’s top prosecutor. Both Yanagida and the Justice Ministry argue that none of his remarks constituted a comprehensive command, as stipulated by the Public Prosecutor’s Office Act in handling individual concrete cases.

Such authority has been exercised only once — in 1954 by Justice Minister Takeru Inukai — who at the request of Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, ordered the prosecutor general to refrain from arresting Eisaku Sato, then secretary general of the ruling Liberal Party, in an alleged bribery scandal involving the shipbuilding industry.

Sato avoided prison and Inukai resigned soon afterward.

Yanagida emphasized that his instructions to Obayashi were part of his “ordinary” oversight role as justice minister.

Yanagida stepped down in November to take the blame for comments widely seen as deriding his duty to respond to questioning in the Diet.