Over the past month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government once again found themselves the target of allegations of political favoritism.

This time it was for bending, if not breaking, the rule governing the mandatory retirement age of national public servants in order to allow Hiromu Kurokawa, the 63-year-old head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office, to continue in his post despite having reached retirement age.

Political and media speculation is that by extending Kurokawa’s tenure in his current position until the summer, Abe will be able to appoint him as the next prosecutor general.

While the Abe administration says it has merely reinterpreted the law, conflicting remarks by his administration and bureaucrats at the National Personnel Authority about when and how the decision to reinterpret the law was made have fueled opposition charges of possible cronyism and raised concern among some experts as to whether the move is legal.

Who is Hiromu Kurokawa ?

He’s the head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office and was appointed to the position in January 2019 after a career that began in 1983. In 2011, under the then-ruling Democratic Party of Japan, he reportedly earned praise from DPJ heavyweights such as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku for his skills in dealing with the DPJ and opposition parties, including the Liberal Democratic Party.

Kurokawa was also said to have played a role in working with other agencies in implementing a key goal of Abe and his administration when he returned to power in 2012: The easing of visa regulations that helped fuel the resulting international tourism boom.

He was also involved behind the scenes with the effort to establish tougher, but politically controversial, revisions to the anti-organized crime laws, which were passed in the Diet in 2017. His ability to work with different bureaucratic agencies and his support for two key policy items on Abe’s agenda have earned him the respect of the Prime Minister’s Office and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

When was he due to retire and why?

If it were not for the controversial Cabinet approval at the end of January, he would have had to retire on his 63rd birthday, which was Feb. 7.

A law dating back to 1947 mandates that public prosecutors retire at 63, while the retirement age for prosecutor general, the top post, is 65. In 1981, meanwhile, a revised National Public Service Law stipulated 60 as the mandatory retirement age of civil servants, which could be extended. Previously, there had been no such retirement age rule.

That 1981 revision did not affect the retirement age for prosecutors, meaning public servants and prosecutors had been regarded separately in the matter of retirement age.

How was Kurokawa allowed to continue?

On Jan. 31, the Cabinet approved a measure that would extend Kurokawa’s tenure for another six months. In the National Public Service Law governing bureaucrats, there is a provision that allows them to have their retirement extended up to one year if their retirement is judged to seriously hinder the execution of public duties. The Abe administration used that as justification for the extension.

But this contradicts with what administrations have been doing for decades based on the government’s explanation in 1981 — namely that public prosecutors are exempt from the clause that says the retirement age for public servants can be extended.

On Feb. 13, Abe told a Diet session of his government’s decision that, in effect, it had interpreted the National Public Service Law as also being applicable to public prosecutors. This came a day after Emiko Matsuo, a senior National Personnel Authority official, told the Diet that the agency had not approved the reinterpretation of the law.

But on Feb. 19, six days after Abe’s remark, Matsuo said she had misspoken, saying the National Personnel Authority had approved the reinterpretation after Jan. 22, or just before the Jan. 31 Cabinet decision on Kurokawa’s extension. The next day, on Feb. 20, Justice Minister Masako Mori said that a final decision to change the interpretation of the 1981 law was made on Jan. 24 by the National Personnel Authority, saying that there was consensus within the ministry.

Meanwhile, a group of legal scholars has determined the 1981 revision of the National Public Service Law states that the retirement age extension does not apply to public prosecutors.

Why would Abe go to such lengths for Kurokawa?

Media reports say the Abe administration wants to appoint Kurokawa as prosecutor general.

But by doing so, Abe broke precedent, raising questions about whether the decision to extend Kurokawa’s tenure was politically motivated.

Japan’s prosecutor general, the equivalent of an attorney general in other countries, is Nobuo Inada, who will turn 64 in August.

Inada was appointed prosecutor general in the summer of 2018, and normal practice is to serve for only two years. So if Kurokawa’s retirement age is extended, the Abe administration will be able to appoint Kurokawa, a proven and effective past supporter of its policies, as prosecutor general.

That, in turn, has created worries among opposition party members, legal scholars, and even some prosecutors about the political independence of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

What happens next?

The opposition parties are sure to continue pressing the Abe administration over Kurokawa’s retirement age extension while alleging the decision was due to political favoritism.

Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry has drafted a bill that would raise the mandatory retirement age for public prosecutors to 64 after April 1, 2022 and then to 65 after April 1, 2024. Cabinet approval for the bill is expected this month. But how large the issue will be during Diet deliberations over the coming weeks given other pressing issues, especially the government’s response to the coronavirus, remains to be seen.

Jan. 31: Cabinet approves the extension of the retirement age for Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office chief Hiromu Kurokawa.

Feb. 12: National Personnel Authority executive Emiko Matsuo tells the Diet that the NPA had not approved the reinterpretation of the National Public Service Law, which allows for the extension of the retirement age for public servants.

Feb. 13: Abe tells a Lower House plenary session that his government had reinterpreted the National Public Service Law before the Cabinet approval of Kurokawa’s retirement age on Jan. 31, contradicting Matsuo’s remark.

Feb. 19: Matsuo takes back her remark, saying that the NPA had changed its interpretation of the law on mandatory retirement of national civil servants shortly after Jan. 22, in line with Abe’s comment.

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