For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the past two weeks should have been marked by a series of small victories in a relentless battle against the deadly coronavirus, lifting the state of emergency in almost 90 percent of the country and getting it back in business.
But Abe was in no mood to celebrate. Instead, he was tossed about by a wave of condemnation involving a man that his administration took great pains to defend: Hiromu Kurokawa, head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office.
On Thursday, Kurokawa stepped down after a tabloid expose said he had gambled on mahjong with journalists twice this month despite the state of emergency requesting that nonessential outings be avoided.
His resignation came on top of an already bad week for Abe. Last Monday, the ruling coalition decided to shelve a bill that would extend the retirement age for prosecutors, a move that would have laid the foundations for Kurokawa to become prosecutor-general. The Cabinet had already agreed to push back his retirement as an exception to government rules in January.
Although the gambling revelation is unrelated to the administration’s endorsement of Kurokawa, its deep relationship with the now-disgraced prosecutor makes collateral damage from the scandal unavoidable — at least temporarily.
More broadly for Abe, the double punch offers the latest examples of serious trouble with management control, with a shadow looming over his administration’s signature agenda-setting authority. The administration was already under scrutiny over a government handout in response to the coronavirus.
After Kurokawa submitted his resignation, Abe said it was the Justice Ministry, not him, who decided to extend the retirement age. Nevertheless, he conceded that he bears responsibility for giving Cabinet approval.
“I will take criticism from the public seriously,” Abe told reporters Thursday.
The administration had a good rapport with Kurokawa. His behind the scenes work in coordinating with bureaucrats from various agencies, dating back to his earlier career at the Justice Ministry, to achieve political objectives solidified his relationship with the Prime Minister’s Office, and in particular with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
To preserve these ties and name Kurokawa as the next prosecutor-general, the administration has taken unusual steps.
In January, the Cabinet approved the extension of his tenure eight days before he turned 63, the legally mandated retirement age.
In March, the government proposed a bill that not only extended the retirement age for 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 ruling coalition was adamant that it would pass the bill during the current Diet session. But after vocal objections from the opposition and the public, the Lower House Cabinet Committee abruptly postponed a vote, and the ruling coalition decided not to pursue the bill further.
The dissatisfaction toward Abe was well reflected in media polls. In a Mainichi newspaper poll released Saturday, his approval rating sank 13 points to 27 percent from May 6, when the poll was previously taken. His disapproval rating jumped from 45 percent to 64 percent.
This is not the first time the administration has been forced to change course in recent weeks. In mid-April, the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito squabbled over the government’s emergency economic relief plan for the coronavirus.
The LDP was set to go with ¥300,000 cash handouts for qualified households, but Komeito’s leader directly negotiated with Abe to change the handout to ¥100,000 per person without income restrictions, creating the perception that Abe was losing control.
But the impact of the prosecutor bill and the Kurokawa scandal may not be as consequential as the government’s response to the coronavirus, said Harukata Takenaka, a professor focusing on Japanese politics at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
The administration should have been more thorough in coordinating with the ruling coalition on the cash handout program and its Diet response to the prosecutor bill, he said. Had the prime minister declared the state of emergency over coronavirus earlier and the cash handout flip-flop never took place, he said his approval rating would not have sunk.
“It’s obvious that the administration wanted to promote Kurokawa,” Takenaka said. “Kurokawa bowed out like that. It’ll be a blow to the administration in the short term, like one to two weeks. But whether the damage will last depends on the coronavirus situation.”
The public’s paramount concern at the moment is the government’s measures to contain the virus and minimize the chance of a second wave of infections as the country restarts the economy, he said.
That being said, if the country can keep new infections low, the public’s perception toward the administration would improve and early missteps could be overlooked, he said, citing Abe’s decision to unilaterally shut down schools nationwide in late February as an example.
The prime minister took flak at that time because the decision was abrupt and put a sudden burden on single-parent and low-income households. Ultimately, however, it did not pose damage to the administration, with a TBS poll from early April showing 70 percent thought the school closures should stay in place.