Yanagida won’t meddle with prosecutors

New justice minister to establish third-party panel to study system


New Justice Minister Minoru Yanagida said he is confident the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office will conduct a thorough investigation into the alleged evidence-tampering at the Osaka District Public Prosecutor’s Office that led to the arrest of three of its senior ranks.

“I feel the supreme public prosecutors are doing a good job. I will keep monitoring their work and have no intention of intervening,” Yanagida said in a group interview Tuesday. Yanagida, a Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker in the Upper House, was appointed justice minister in Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s Sept. 17 Cabinet reshuffle.

“I was appointed Friday night and the next Monday I saw newspaper articles about the Osaka prosecutors. I thought, ‘why am I facing such a difficult issue from the very start?’ “

Realizing the importance of reforming the system, Yanagida said at a news conference Wednesday he will set up a third-party panel to study the operations of prosecutors. The panel is expected to discuss how to prevent similar incidents and how to improve prosecutors’ morale.

Prosecutor Tsunehiko Maeda from the Osaka prosecutor’s office has been arrested for altering data on a floppy disk seized as evidence in an alleged postal fee scam involving senior welfare ministry official Atsuko Muraki, who was acquitted last month. Two of Maeda’s supervisors have also been arrested for allegedly hindering an investigation into the case.

The Justice Ministry supervises prosecutor’s offices. But during the interview, Yanagida said the ministry should be careful not to interfere politically. His position accords him the right to give a specific order to the prosecutor general, the head of the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office, but only one time was such an order ever issued.

Yanagida reiterated the government’s position that the Naha District Public Prosecutor’s Office was not politically influenced over the Sept. 24 release of Zhan Qixiong, a Chinese trawler captain arrested over the collisions involving his vessel and two Japan Coast Guard ships near the Senkaku Islands, which China claims but Japan controls.

On the inquest panel’s decision that Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ’s “shadow shogun,” should be charged in connection with falsified political funds reports, Yanagida said: “People in the ruling and opposition parties have various opinions. I won’t comment on whether he should leave the DPJ or on how the party should handle the matter.”

The Committee for the Inquest of Prosecutors, an independent judicial panel of citizens, said Monday that Ozawa should be charged with falsely reporting political funds, leaving prosecutors with no alternative but to indict him.

On Ozawa’s questioning the validity of the panel’s decision, Yanagida said, “I will keep watching how the (inquest panel) system operates,” appearing to admit he respects the decision.

In a nation with a 99 percent conviction rate, an Ozawa trial would be a media field day.

“Now that the situation has come to this (certain Ozawa indictment), the judicial system should just follow the law,” Yanagida said.

Asked his view on the death penalty, Yanagida, who has never stated a position, said “we should respect court rulings and comply with current laws.”

Yanagida’s predecessor, Keiko Chiba, a known opponent of the death penalty who nonetheless ordered hangings while justice minister, set up a panel in August to study capital punishment. Yanagida said he will retain the panel, but added he has no intention of suspending executions simply because the panel has yet to reach a conclusion.

On whether Japan should be party to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which ensures international cooperation to promptly return abducted children, particularly those spirited away to another country by an estranged spouse, Yanagida only said, “We will work with the Foreign Ministry and prudently consider the matter.”

On immigration policy, he said his ministry should handle it “strictly and smoothly at the same time,” adding that Japan needs more foreigners for economic growth but must also ensure public safety.

Yanagida, a Kagoshima native, quit the University of Tokyo to work at a sushi restaurant. He returned to the university and upon graduating joined Kobe Steel Ltd. He joined the Democratic Socialist Party and first entered the Diet as a Lower House member in 1990. He won an Upper House seat in 1998 and joined the DPJ the same year.