The sudden resignation of Hiromu Kurokawa, head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office, on May 22 after a weekly magazine revealed he had defied the government’s self-isolation request by playing high-stakes mahjong on two occasions was ironic in more ways than one. Kurokawa was already in the public eye because the Cabinet in January postponed his legally mandated retirement in order that he remain in his post, a seemingly extralegal directive that compelled the government to add prosecutors to an existing group of proposed bills to raise the retirement age for civil service jobs. When critics suggested the amendment was concocted to justify the Cabinet decision retroactively, the government withdrew the whole bill, at least temporarily.
The public and the media cried foul because Kurokawa was seen to be sympathetic to the interests of the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, thus undermining the separation of powers that is vital to the well-being of a liberal democracy. The government denied this, saying that it was the Justice Ministry’s idea to retain Kurokawa, so it’s particularly embarrassing that he was caught gambling, which is illegal. The other irony is that he performed this illegal act in the home of a reporter for the Sankei Shimbun along with two other media workers. Supposedly, the press has had firsthand knowledge of Kurokawa’s gambling proclivities for some time.
Prosecutors and journalists have a special relationship. When covering criminal investigations and trials, reporters rely almost exclusively on information, including leaks, from the public prosecutor’s office. It’s standard access journalism, which is why prosecutors tend to have the last word. In exchange, the mainstream media maintains their image as untouchable protectors of public safety and order.
This image was central to the Cabinet’s desire to keep Kurokawa in his post. In the Dec. 20, 2018 issue of Shukan Bunshun, former NHK reporter Fuyuki Aizawa, who broke the 2017 Moritomo Gakuen land purchase scandal story that continues to haunt the Abe administration, recalls that Kurokawa was the top bureaucrat in the Justice Ministry at the time and allegedly helped quash the investigation, even though the head prosecutor in Osaka, where the scandal unfolded, wanted to pursue an indictment. In a piece for Yahoo News, Aizawa says the administration eventually wanted Kurokawa to become prosecutor-general, thus making him even more “the guardian of the Cabinet.” The extension of Kurokawa’s term was only for six months, meaning he would retire in August, and the present prosecutor-general, Nobuo Inada, was expected to retire in July, according to a discussion by journalists during a May 16 broadcast of the web news program “Democracy Times.” Although Inada is 63 and the retirement age for prosecutors-general is 65, he assumed the post in 2018, and per “custom,” prosecutors-general only serve two years, which would allow the Cabinet to move Kurokawa into the post before his extension expired.
Even if the bill had passed, it wouldn’t have gone into effect until April 2022. The point was to keep Kurokawa in his current post until Inada left, but according to the Mainichi Shimbun, Inada didn’t seem to want to leave. If he decided to stay, which was his right, it would have caused more problems for Abe, so, in a sense, the mahjong scandal saves the government from carrying out a potentially self-damaging act of human resource manipulation. Instead of placing a friend in the prosecutor-general’s seat, they might have ended up making an enemy out of the man who wouldn’t give it up.
As explained by former prosecutor Nobuo Gohara during a May 15 installment of “Democracy Times,” prosecutors — higher on the bureaucratic totem pole than judges — are supervised by the administration in that they’re appointed by the Justice Ministry and, since 2014, approved by the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs. But the public prosecutor’s office has its own culture, and another of its customs is that the sitting prosecutor-general selects his successor. Inada, according to Gohara, wanted another candidate and may have resented the Cabinet’s veiled attempt to subvert his prerogative. As it happens, Inada’s preferred candidate, head of the Nagoya High Public Prosecutor’s Office, Makoto Hayashi, took over Kurokawa’s post after Kurokawa resigned and is expected to become prosecutor-general.
Journalist Osamu Aoki, writing in the May 14 issue of Mainichi Shimbun, said that the retirement bill controversy obscured the reality that prosecutors’ powers are limitless, allowing them to demand indefinite detention, refuse bail for any reason and ban defense lawyers from interrogations — all the issues that outraged the international community after former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn was arrested for financial crimes in November 2018. Gohara, who is intimate with the methods of the public prosecutor’s office, says it will do anything to protect its “opaque” character. Despite its discretion to appoint and promote, even the Cabinet can’t see inside, which is why it was trying to put Kurokawa in the driver’s seat.
During a freewheeling discussion of the matter on popular social media star Yukou Shimizu’s YouTube program, “Hitotsuki Mansatsu,” former Asahi Shimbun reporter Hiromichi Ugaya expressed frustration with the public’s anxiety over the retirement bill’s perceived threat to separation of powers. The bill was innocuous, and the separation of powers — the idea that each branch of government is checked by the others — is essentially a myth in Japan. The public thought the Cabinet was undermining the public prosecutor’s office’s mandate to protect the people’s interests, but arguably the only interests the public prosecutor’s office protects is its own. It’s taken down one prime minister — Kakuei Tanaka in the 1970s — and, despite being exposed for fabricating evidence in a bid to discredit a lawmaker in 2009, it still has the power to instill fear in any politician, regardless of party affiliation. The Abe administration’s reasons for keeping Kurokawa close may have been self-serving, but prosecutors in Japan can do anything they want and no one, it seems, can stop them.