The Cabinet's decision to postpone the scheduled retirement of the head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office has caused a stir. It raised suspicions the Abe administration wants to appoint the superintendent public prosecutor, a post that traditionally acts closely with the administration of the day, as the nation's top public prosecutor.

While it remains unclear whether or not such conjecture has any merit, due to a dearth of specifics about the decision-making process, the very fact the administration is under a cloud in this regard is deeply disturbing.

Just before Hiromu Kurokawa's scheduled Feb. 7 retirement, the Cabinet abruptly decided to extend his tenure by six months.

The public prosecutors office law stipulates that the public prosecutor general, or the head of the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office, should retire at age 65. The mandatory retirement age for other public prosecutors is 63.

The Cabinet courted controversy by invoking a provision in the national public service law to grant an exceptional extension of retirement on grounds there are important cases pending that Kurokawa needs to deal with. But that is hardly a convincing reason for the decision, which has been criticized as an illegal action or at least a circumvention of the law.

Nobuo Inada, the incumbent public prosecutor general, will have served in the post for two years by the end of July. In recent years, most top public prosecutors retired after about two years in office. There is speculation the administration delayed Kurokawa's retirement so as to appoint him as Inada's successor.

Kurokawa put in many years at the Justice Minister's Secretariat and served in such key ministry posts as chief secretary and vice minister. He is also hugely experienced in holding talks with ruling and opposition parties, as well as with courts and bar associations, on issues concerning judicial administration and the establishment or review of laws under the ministry's jurisdiction.

Kurokawa also developed close ties with the power center of the administration. This is because the Justice Ministry acts as the representative of the government in lawsuits involving the state.

Many past top prosecutors were appointed to the post because of their track record in the area of negotiations with outside parties, including the political community. From this point of view, Kurokawa's resume is not exceptional.

However, the law sets a mandatory retirement age for the public prosecutor general to ensure periodical changes in leadership, no matter how competent the top official may be. This is why the Cabinet's unusual move provoked criticism.

Despite being part of the administrative branch of the government, the functions of public prosecutors are closely linked to the exercise of judicial power. Public prosecutors' investigations and decisions concerning criminal cases could influence the fate of an administration.

The public prosecutor general leads this prosecution machinery. The official is responsible for ensuring the organization as a whole does not become self-righteous or influenced by political interests.

Successive administrations were very cautious in appointing the top prosecutor to avoid raising any suspicion. Traditionally, administrations carefully weighed their decisions concerning candidates while paying attention to the opinions of top Justice Ministry officials and senior prosecutors.

The Abe administration's convention-defying decision could upset this system, whose roots lie in accumulated wisdom.

The Abe Cabinet has a history of placing convenient individuals in key posts at organizations that are supposed to maintain a certain degree of independence from the government and check the power of the administrative branch so as to promote its policies.

A case in point is the replacement of director-general of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau seven years ago. The administration also created a system to give the Cabinet the final say in top personnel appointments at ministries and agencies.

These moves left officialdom in Kasumigaseki, Tokyo's administrative quarters, under strong pressure to avoid criticizing or dissenting from the administration's policies and decisions. The upshot of that bureaucrats found themselves conflicted, as indicated by a string of scandals involving cover-ups and falsifications of official documents.

We are concerned that the decision to postpone Kurokawa's retirement could send a strong signal to bureaucrats about the administration's ability to exert control over the prosecution system, thereby putting even stronger pressure on them to toe the government's line.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 11