This story was updated May 21, 2020. See post-script.
TOKYO—Shameless autocrats all over the world seem to share one thing in common: an irresistible urge to subvert the criminal justice system to benefit themselves and their cronies, often by placing at least one unscrupulous puppet in a key power position. President Donald Trump already has William Barr. Now Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to put his own man in place to be, at once, lapdog and guard dog.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed.
You wouldn’t think the hashtag “I object to changing the laws governing the public prosecutors office” would trend to the tune of 10 million tweets, but in Japan it has caught on. The prime minister is trying to set in stone legal groundwork making his ally Hiromu Kurokawa the most powerful prosecutor in the land. (Kurokawa is widely known in the press as Abe’s “guardian deity,” which might sound like guardian angel, but is a little more elevated.)
Public opposition is surprisingly fierce, with millions of people, including some of Japan’s most famous celebrities, making their voices known.
Opposition parties, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, and former prosecutors have joined the protest. Even conservative media have had to address the many references to Abe as a crass and sinister opportunist kajibadorobo—a thief who would rob a burning house while the occupants were trying to douse the flames.
Kurokawa's face—usually the same picture, hair parted in the middle peering over his glasses—has been plastered on front pages with headlines like "Angry Voices Toward Abe Regime” and, “A Thief at a Fire in the Middle of the Coronavirus Pandemic.”
As the government is urging citizens to avoid “not necessary and not urgent” business during the COVID-19 epidemic, the ruling coalition has been in a huge rush to pass into law not necessary and not urgent legislation—apparently under the impression no one was looking.
Abe has a long history placing subservient and unqualified individuals in key posts at agencies and ministries that are supposed to maintain a certain degree of independence from the government. He appointed a man who had never used a computer as the Minister of Information Technology. His current pick for Minister of Justice didn’t seem to know that defendants in Japan are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Using “candy and the whip,” as we say in Japan, Abe has managed to make most government agencies fall in line. The bureaucrats in Tokyo are all under strong pressure to avoid criticizing or dissenting from the administration's policies and decisions if they want to thrive, or even survive. This has resulted in multiple scandals involving cover-ups and falsification of official documents.
In 2018, bureaucrats in the Ministry of Finance were willing to alter, destroy, and hide documents incriminating Abe and his wife in a dubious land sale to right-wing acolytes; this is known as the Moritomo Gakuen scandal. The Osaka Prosecutor’s Office refused to indict any of the bureaucrats involved. But this year the diary of Toshio Akagi, a high-ranking bureaucrat involved in the cover-up, was published by his widow. Akagi was 54 when he committed suicide in protest. His diary, which names the people involved in the cover-up, has sparked intense public interest in reopening the investigation–even from Abe’s mentor, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Several other scandals are simmering that threaten to put Abe and possibly some of his LDP cronies in jail. “Sakuragate,” under review by the Tokyo prosecutors, looks at allegations Abe violated election laws by using public funds to win favor from his constituents. An influence peddling scandal threatens to show that not just one but many LDP members received bribes related to Japan’s legalization of casinos. Prosecutors in Hiroshima are looking at election law violations that could be traced to the top of the LDP, and also involve Abe’s last pick as Minister of Justice, Katsuyuki Kawai.
To fend off all these assaults, Abe and his pals definitely need the best “guardian deity” they can find: veteran prosecutor Kurokawa. They’ve been counting on him to continue to work his magic in 2020.
But there was a problem.
Kurokawa—who is currently the second most powerful prosecutor in Japan as head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office—was due to retire on February 7, before turning 63, which is the mandatory retirement age for most high-level prosecutors.
On January 31, the Abe cabinet decided to extend Kurokawa’s tenure by six months. When opposition leaders and scholars pointed out this decision probably was illegal, Abe decided to put forth legislation to make it possible, after the fact.
In the shadows of the coronavirus panic, last Friday, the Japanese government decided to push forward the laws that would legalize the extension of Kurokawa’s tenure and thus pave the way for him to become the top prosecutor when the current placeholder retires this year.
With everyone distracted by the day to day announcement of COVID-19 infections and deaths, Abe must have assumed this new bill would sail through without being noticed. But he was mistaken.
Over the weekend a single tweet with the ubiquitous hashtag from a 35-year-old working woman in Tokyo set off a wave of protests. She was joined by many A-list actresses, actors, singers, writers and comedians. Beloved actress Kyoko Koizumi spoke out; Tadanobu Asano, a staple in Hollywood films about Japan, made himself heard. Even the queen of “kawaii” (cuteness), singer and fashion icon Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, with over 5 million followers on Twitter, went online to express her concerns.
Abe has repeatedly dismissed concerns about the proposed changes, saying,“There are absolutely no concerns that any personnel decisions will be made arbitrarily.”
Former Special Prosecutor Nobuo Gohara isn’t so sure.
“In the Japanese justice system, the prosecutors have a monopoly on the right to publicly prosecute an individual. What happens if prosecutors won’t do their job? If the administration decides who stays and who goes, it is a serious problem that shakes the separation of powers. It threatens democracy in Japan as we know it.”
Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, has condemned the prime minister not only for his intentions but also his timing.
“Rather than focusing on overcoming the coronavirus crisis, he is prioritizing putting convenient laws in place for himself and turning his back on public opinion. He is a thief amidst a roaring fire, politically abusing this crisis.”
The comparison of Abe to an opportunistic burglar may seem harsh. But if you’re a thief looting the town while the masses are watching the flames, you want to be sure that someone has your back. With friends like Kurokawa behind you, you can be sure that even if you get arrested, you won’t wind up in jail. The only problem is that once you let a democracy burn down, it’s very hard to rebuild it from the ashes.
Post Script — On Thursday, May 21, 2020, weekly magazine Bunshun broke the news that during Japan’s declared state of emergency, Kurokawa was playing mahjong with three friendly reporters at a house in Tokyo, and betting on the outcome. He reportedly is a very good player, but gambling is illegal and the timing, very bad. He told the Ministry of Justice that he will resign.
On the same day, a criminal complaint over Sakuragate, accusing Abe of violating election and political fund laws, was handed to The Tokyo Prosecutors’ Office; it was signed by several hundred lawyers. The prosecutors, who have been losing lately in the court of public opinion, seem motivated to take the complaint seriously now.
In any case, the die had been cast for Kurokawa's appointment, and he had lost. On Monday, May 18, 2020, after sensing that the voters and the legal community were turning against them, the ruling coalition decided to pull the controversial bill from consideration in this current session of the Parliament. The plans to ramrod this legislation into law, as Abe had previously done with the heavily opposed peace preservation laws, the state secrets laws, and the criminal conspiracy laws—failed, at least for now.
It seems that Abe’s guardian deity may in fact be his “yakubyogami”—the god that brings misfortune.