On Monday, Abe met with Nikai Toshihiro, the Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party, at the Prime Minister’s office. They discussed the bill and agreed that it would be difficult to proceed with debate during the current Diet session without public support. Abe and the LDP had planned to pass it in the Lower House in a few days’ time.
The issue regarding the bill dates back to January, when the cabinet decided to postpone the retirement of Kurokawa Hiromu, head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office. The move drew widespread condemnation, with opposition lawmakers and academics saying it was a ploy to make Kurokawa available to be the next prosecutor general—the country’s top prosecutor.
“Undermines prosecutorial independence”
In March, the government approved a bill that would revise the retirement age of public prosecutors from 63 to 65, in line with that of other civil service employees. Lower House discussion began in April.
Opposition parties called for the removal of a clause that would enable the Cabinet to extend the tenure of senior prosecutors by up to three years, saying this would pave the way for arbitrary personnel appointments by the government.
The Abe administration objected to these claims, saying the bill would do nothing to undermine prosecutorial independence, or the separation of the three branches of power.
Opposition parties also claim that the bill is aimed at justifying the decision to postpone Kurokawa’s retirement. The government says the two issues are unrelated.
Furthermore, the opposition has criticized the timing of the bill, saying the complete attention of the nation’s legislative bodies should be given to the coronavirus.
On Friday, more than a dozen former senior prosecutors expressed their opposition to the bill. They include former prosecutor general Matsuo Kunihiro.
“The most important thing is to maintain the independence of our prosecutors,” Matsuo told reporters. “This bill would seriously damage the Japanese legal system.”
Additionally, a group of 38 former members of the special investigation unit at the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office presented a written opinion to the Justice Ministry on Monday, calling for a review of the bill. The team is known for its investigations into politicians, senior bureaucrats, and major economic crimes.
Opposition to the bill has also been widespread among the public. Millions of people have taken to social media to express their anger.
A number of celebrities have taken up the cause, including renowned theater director Miyamoto Amon.
“Human lives should be the focus during the coronavirus crisis,” Miyamoto said in a tweet. “It is a tragedy for Japan that a bill clearly at odds with democracy is being pushed through the Diet.”
Actor Iura Arata tweeted, “Laws and politics should not be distorted any further for the sake of self-protection and convenience. This country cannot be destroyed.”
A recent NHK poll shows the extent of public opposition to the bill. 62% of respondents said they are against it, while only 17% said they support it. Even among supporters of the ruling parties, 52% said they oppose the law.
The government’s sudden decision to shelve the bill indicates it is conscious of the widespread disapproval.
Abe in trouble?
According to the poll, sentiment is shifting against the Abe administration. The cabinet’s disapproval rating rose 7 points to 45%. It is now higher than the approval rating, which dropped to 37%, for the first time in two years.
The government says it plans to enact the law at an extraordinary diet session in the fall. But some ruling party lawmakers say their window to pass the bill may have passed.
“It should have been taken care of during the current diet,” one said. “A fresh start in the autumn just raises the bar and will make things harder.”
Some LDP members have even indicated that this latest setback may be shaking the party’s faith in Abe. It follows a turnaround last month regarding the government’s coronavirus aid package, when Abe quickly introduced a universal handout after his plan for a needs-based fund was met with a chorus of criticism.
For now, Abe will hope that mothballing the bill helps ease some of the public anger. But with opposition to his administration growing, he can hardly afford any more major slip-ups.