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In an unexpected move, the Lower House Cabinet Committee on Friday postponed a vote on a bill that would extend the retirement age for prosecutors, pushing back a showdown over the controversial plan until next week.

The ruling coalition was expected to ram the vote through the committee on Friday after allowing Justice Minister Masako Mori to testify, as demanded by the opposition.

The delay was a partial setback for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had insisted that raising the retirement age is important to preserve expertise and that the move is consistent with a previous revision extending the retirement age for public servants. The ruling party is hoping to approve the bill next week.

The legislation is a target of vociferous protests from opposition lawmakers, lawyers and celebrities, who claimed the change would enable the politicization of an independent judiciary system.

“I can see why the government is trying to pass this bill amid the coronavirus outbreak,” said Yasufumi Fujino, an opposition Japanese Community Party lawmaker, before the committee vote. “I absolutely can’t condone the government acting like a thief at a fire and bulldozing this bill.”

The passage of the bill could impact Abe’s popularity, which is already taking a hit over the government’s handling of the coronavirus. The move may reinforce critics’ suspicions that the extension is politically motivated and that the government now has earned rationale to tap Hiromu Kurokawa — the head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office who is seen as having cozy ties with the Abe administration — as the next prosecutor general.

As of now, the retirement age for prosecutors is at 63 but that for the prosecutor general is 65. The legislation would uniformly extend the retirement age to 65, but with Cabinet approval, prosecutors and the prosecutor general could be kept on until age 68. It would be implemented from April 2022.

At Friday’s committee debate, the opposition pressed Mori to make public the criteria the Cabinet would use to decide whether to grant extensions. She refused to offer such details.

Mori admitted she was unaware of any cases other than Kurokawa that required a public prosecutor to remain in the position beyond the age 63 since last October, prompting opposition lawmaker Yuichi Goto to suggest that the legislation was crafted specifically so that Kurokawa could assume the prosecutor general role.

The opposition on Friday submitted a motion of no confidence against Ryota Takeda, the minister in charge of civil service reform, who handled government responses to the legislation. It also seeks to propose a separate motion to dismiss Cabinet Committee Chairman Fumiaki Matsumoto.

The moves, along with an amendment sponsored by the opposition, are anticipated to be shot down.

Critics lambasted the bill as being designed to rationalize the administration’s earlier last-minute work to extend the tenure of Kurokawa, the 63-year-old top public prosecutor, and enshrine the process to avoid potential consequences.

On Jan. 31, the Cabinet approved the extension of Kurokawa’s tenure until Aug. 7, eight days before he would have turned 63 on Feb. 8.

At the time, the administration justified the unprecedented move by explaining that it had applied a provision from the legislation governing public servants.

The provision states that retirement can be pushed back up to one year under special circumstances. Mori, the justice minister, said Kurokawa needed to remain in his post to lead investigations as well as handle trials for “significant, complicated and difficult cases” under his jurisdiction. He has been in charge of probes against former Nissan Motor Co. chairman Carlos Ghosn and casino resort scandals.

But during Diet debate in 1981, the government said it had interpreted the provision to mean that prosecutors were exempt. After this came to light in February, Abe said his administration reinterpreted the provision and said prosecutors would fall under the provision.

The National Personnel Authority initially said it had not authorized the reinterpretation but later reversed this statement, with the head of the agency saying she had “misspoken.” Reports say there is no paper trail describing the decision-making process on the reinterpretation.

Public opposition to the legislation was palpable. A chorus of celebrities, who are usually reticent about political issues, publicly denounced the bill using a hashtag meaning “I oppose the revision of the public prosecutor’s office law” on Twitter.

The Japan Bar Association protested that the legislation “threatens the separation of powers.” Right-leaning Nippon Ishin no Kai appealed to the LDP to divide up the legislation and debate issues separately. The LDP rejected the idea.

Critics are alarmed that the legislation gave momentum for the administration to appoint Kurokawa prosecutor general.

Nobuo Inada, the current prosecutor general, is expected to step down when he fulfills a traditional two-year tenure in August. The Cabinet let Kurokawa stay in his current job until August, a move critics believe was meant to stall while it worked to change the law in this Diet session.

They also worry about Kurokawa’s ability to be nonpartisan. He served as deputy vice minister of justice and vice minister of justice before assuming his current role in January 2019. In the previous posts, he played a key role in advancing the Abe administration’s agenda, such as easing visa regulations to trigger a tourism boom, passing controversial state secret laws and revising anti-organized crime laws.

His behind the scenes work in coordinating bureaucrats from various agencies solidified his relationship with the administration, particularly Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, raising concerns that the administration would apply unjust pressure on him if he were appointed to the role.

Critics say giving him the post would undermine the independence of the public prosecutor’s office and leave lasting ramifications on the country’s justice system.

They are also angry at the timing, with the bill coming before the Diet amid a pandemic. Describing it as a “nonessential, nonurgent” bill, they claim that the legislation should not be debated now since the government must focus on formulating a strategy to reopen the country.

Abe dismissed those accusations in Diet deliberations, saying that his administration would not arbitrarily meddle with personnel affairs with an ulterior political motive. He declined to comment on whether he would nominate Kurokawa for the prosecutor general post.

“Prosecutors are executive officials,” Abe said Thursday night during a news conference. “There has been criticism that it is wrong for the Cabinet to appoint (prosecutors in executive positions), but the Cabinet has traditionally carried out the task…. There have been no changes and the legislation surely won’t interfere with the separation of powers.”

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