The cabinet on Friday approved the resignation of Japan's second-highest ranking prosecutor, believed to be favored by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for going out gambling earlier this month and ignoring social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Hiromu Kurokawa tendered his resignation as chief of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office on Thursday after admitting to playing mahjong for money with newspaper reporters at one of their homes.
The ouster of Kurokawa is a fresh blow for Abe, who has faced a string of money and favoritism scandals since his return to power in late 2012 and is being criticized for his government's coronavirus response.
Justice Minister Masako Mori said Friday she asked Abe whether she should resign over the scandal, which was first reported by the Shukan Bunshun weekly magazine, but that Abe had asked her to remain.
"It will be a very difficult road ahead, but I've come to the conclusion that there can't be a delay in implementing judicial policy," Mori told a press conference.
Makoto Hayashi, head of the Nagoya High Public Prosecutors Office, is a leading candidate to replace Kurokawa, sources familiar with the matter said.
According to the Shukan Bunshun report, Kurokawa played mahjong with two reporters from the Sankei Shimbun daily and an employee of the Asahi Shimbun daily on May 1 and May 13.
Kurokawa may face criminal charges as Japanese law prohibits unauthorized gambling, which is punishable with a fine of up to 500,000 yen. But the letter of the law is somewhat ambiguous as it treats small bets that are one-off or infrequent as exceptions.
The incidents also took place despite a state of emergency having been declared in Tokyo and several other prefectures on April 7 -- later expanded nationwide -- with residents asked to stay home and some businesses to close temporarily to avoid spreading COVID-19.
The Sankei Shimbun and The Asahi Shimbun both ran articles in their Friday morning editions admitting that their employees played mahjong for money. The Asahi also identified Kurokawa as having been at the game. Both newspapers offered apologies to the public.
The former Justice Ministry official drew attention in January when the cabinet allowed him to remain in his post even after he turned 63, the retirement age for prosecutors. Speculation was rife that the government was looking for him to succeed Prosecutor General Nobuo Inada, who is expected to retire in July.
After critics pointed out this likely violated a law on public prosecutors, the government and ruling coalition sought to revise it to allow the cabinet to raise the retirement age to 66 for high-ranking prosecutors at its discretion.
The move sparked a public backlash, including rare protests by celebrities on Twitter, amid concerns that this would hurt the separation of powers between the executive and judiciary.
The government and ruling coalition shelved the legislation during the current Diet session, and a source in Abe's Liberal Democratic Party has said it may be scrapped altogether.© KYODO