The head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office, who has been the focus of intense scrutiny over his close relationship with the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, submitted his resignation Thursday following a report that he had participated in a game of mahjong while gambling with newspaper employees.
Hiromu Kurokawa, 63, bet money while playing the game with two reporters from the right-leaning Sankei newspaper and one former reporter with the left-leaning Asahi newspaper for several hours on May 1 and 13, according to a report in the Shukan Bunshun magazine published Thursday.
Justice Minister Masako Mori told reporters Thursday that the ministry confirmed the report.
“This kind of behavior is nothing but inappropriate and it is deeply regrettable,” Mori said.
According to the report, they met at the apartment of one of the Sankei reporters in Tokyo — even though the government has been urging residents to avoid nonessential outings under the coronavirus state of emergency.
The meetings also took place as the ruling party was preparing a highly contentious bill that would have cleared the way for Kurokawa to become the nation’s highest-ranking public prosecutor.
The revelation marks the latest controversy surrounding Kurokawa, who has been seen as having a close relationship with the Abe administration. Even worse, the resignation carries more significant and inevitable political repercussions for the administration, which has already been criticized over its coronavirus response.
The magazine report said Kurokawa had used a hired car provided by the Sankei newspaper, which could also be a public servant ethics violation.
Neither of the newspapers has disclosed the names of their implicated staff members, but the magazine report described the Sankei reporters as covering courts and legal affairs, and the former Asahi reporter, who now works in a noneditorial division, as having covered the public prosecutors’ office.
The Asahi newspaper company apologized that one of its male employees in his 50s had participated in the “extremely inappropriate behavior,” although it did not say whether he had bet any money.
The Sankei newspaper neither confirmed nor denied the report, citing the protection of sources, but said in a statement that it “wouldn’t condone inappropriate behavior” and would take any necessary action.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to comment despite being pressed repeatedly by reporters, referring one inquiry to the Justice Ministry. Abe said he will respect the decision of the ministry and bears responsibility for the approval of extending Kurokawa’s retirement.
Kurokawa and the current administration have had a long history of close cooperation in achieving political objectives, something that has continued since his earlier career at the Justice Ministry. His behind the scenes work in coordinating between bureaucrats from various agencies solidified his relationship with the administration, in particular with Suga.
Since assuming his current role in January 2019, Kurokawa has been in charge of probes against former Nissan Motor Co. Chairman Carlos Ghosn and a scandal involving casino resorts.
His relationship with the administration has been under the microscope since earlier this year, starting on Jan. 31 when the Cabinet approved the extension of his tenure until Aug. 7.
The approval came eight days before Kurokawa turned 63 on Feb. 8. Under the current law, 63 is the retirement age for prosecutors.
The administration explained that it had applied a provision from the legislation governing public servants, despite the government having set a precedent in 1981 of interpreting the provision to mean that prosecutors were exempt.
The reinterpretation has raised suspicions that Abe’s ultimate goal was to nominate Kurokawa as the next prosecutor-general, since the incumbent is expected to step down in August.
Subsequently, the government proposed a bill that not only extended the retirement age of prosecutors and prosecutors-general to 65 but also enabled retirement to be deferred further until 68 for individuals granted Cabinet approval on a case by case basis. The administration suggested the bill would help retain the expertise of veteran prosecutors.
Opposition lawmakers, lawyers, former prosecutors and celebrities have railed against the legislation, slamming it as an attempt to rationalize the administration’s earlier, last-minute move extending Kurokawa’s tenure and enshrine the process in law to avoid potential consequences, while also politicizing and undermining the independence of the judicial system with the introduction of the Cabinet approval.
Alarmed by the chorus of opposition at a time when the prime minister’s approval rating was already plummeting over the administration’s handling of the new coronavirus, the government decided to shelve the legislation — at least for the current Diet session.
Opposition parties have seized on the magazine report to ramp up their condemnation of the administration.
“Not heeding our advice to focus on the coronavirus response, the administration has bulldozed through Cabinet approval of (extending) Mr. Kurokawa’s retirement in an act barely within the letter of the law,” said Jun Azumi, Diet affairs committee chair for the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.
“The end result is (him) playing mahjong for money? I’m deeply upset. … If the government accepts his resignation and pays him generous retirement benefits, the people will be distressed and such action would warrant resignation of the Cabinet en masse.”
Information from Kyodo added
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