A top Japanese prosecutor thought to be favored by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's office tendered his resignation on Thursday after a report that he played mahjong for money with reporters earlier this month, defying social distancing guidelines introduced to fight the novel coronavirus.
Hiromu Kurokawa has admitted to the allegations and asked to step down as chief of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office, Justice Minister Masako Mori told reporters, adding the cabinet will accept the resignation on Friday.
According to the Shukan Bunshun weekly magazine report, Kurokawa played mahjong with two reporters of the Sankei Shimbun newspaper and an employee of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper on May 1 and May 13.
A nationwide state of emergency came into effect in April and remains in place in some areas including Tokyo, Osaka and Hokkaido, with people being asked to stay at home and avoid close contact with others.
Kurokawa's resignation is a fresh setback for Abe, who has ridden out a string of money and favoritism scandals since his return to power in late 2012.
The magazine's report, released Wednesday night in its online edition ahead of the print version hitting newsstands Thursday, had sparked calls from the ruling and opposition parties -- and even some within the judicial branch -- for Kurokawa to step down.
It also set social media abuzz with tweets bearing a Japanese hashtag demanding that he be dismissed as a disciplinary step. Abe told reporters on Thursday that the Justice Ministry was looking into the matter and he had yet to be briefed on the details.
Kurokawa drew attention in January when the Cabinet allowed him to remain in his post even after he turned 63, the retirement age for prosecutors, amid speculation 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 regarding the Public Prosecutors Office, the government and ruling coalition sought to revise the law to raise the retirement age to 65, a highly controversial move that sparked a public backlash led by celebrities on Twitter.
While the government and ruling coalition said Monday they were shelving the controversial legislation during the current Diet session, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference Thursday that it was a necessary change that would be pursued in the future.
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.
In January 2017, the mayor and deputy mayor of the city of Iizuka in Fukuoka Prefecture resigned after they were found to have played mahjong for money while on the job. But prosecutors chose not to indict them as they only played once or twice a month, and gambled around 10,000 yen on each occasion.
Seiji Osaka, policy chief of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, told reporters on Thursday it was "a matter of course" for Kurokawa to resign and that the Abe administration should also be held accountable.© KYODO