Investigation By Japan Prosecutors Office Draws Criticism; Advisor Slams Report Related to Vote-Buying Scandal

An investigation into a prosecutor’s alleged attempt to illicitly obtain a confession has been criticized by a member of an advisory panel to the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office.

The office investigated the prosecutor’s conduct in connection with a case of vote-buying for the House of Councillors election in 2019. According to the advisory panel member, a report released by the office last year failed to deal with the issues causing the problem.

The member warned that similar incidents will occur again if only the need to heighten prosecutors’ awareness is emphasized.

The advisory panel was established by the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office in the wake of an evidence falsification scandal involving the special investigation squad of the Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office that came to light in 2010. Tasked with advising the office on all aspects of prosecutors’ activities, the panel’s members include former judges as well as attorneys and criminal law experts.

The 2019 vote-buying scandal involved former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai. A prosecutor from the special investigation squad of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office said during the voluntary questioning of former Hiroshima city assembly member Tsuneyasu Kido that he wanted Kido to continue to be an assembly member, hinting that he could avoid indictment. Though this and other means, he got Kido to sign a written deposition containing a confession.

At an advisory panel meeting on Feb. 7, one of its 11 members expressed their opinion about the prosecutor’s questioning to Prosecutor General Yukio Kai and other senior members of the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office, according to the panel’s record of proceedings and participants.

“I wonder whether the prosecutor thought it was alright to question him [Kido] in this inappropriate way” in order to get him to tell the truth, the member reportedly said.

In a report released at the end of last year, the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office’s Inspection Department called the prosecutor’s remarks “inappropriate.” However, it did not mention in detail his motivation. It also concluded that since the prosecutor’s supervisors denied that systemic instructions were being given to conduct improper question, no such conduct was taking place.

To prevent a recurrence, the report said prosecutors would make efforts to “heighten the awareness of prosecutors regarding appropriate investigations and trials, and their supervisors will make efforts to proactively lead and guide them.”

The panel member reportedly spoke for about 10 minutes as senior prosecutors listened quietly. The member claimed “the Inspection Department should have ascertained the actual situation of prosecutors that caused the problem.” They also said the report revealed “the limit of investigations by the Inspection Department” and “it could not be said the office was able to devise fundamental measures to prevent a recurrence.

In the vote-buying scandal, another former prosecutor of the special investigation squad told The Yomiuri Shimbun that he had induced an assembly member to admit having taken a bribe by hinting that the member could avoid indictment.

The existence of a chart designed to keep track of individual prosecutors’ investigations also came to light, revealing the possibility of an atmosphere in which prosecutors were enouraged to compete each other in their investigations and had pressure placed on them.

Like the advisory panel, the Inspection Department – which deals with illegal and inappropriate activities by prosecutors – is a symbol for reforming prosecutors. Yet, the department is only empowered to conduct examinations after the fact when it comes to problems related to investigations.

The latest report spurred criticism from legal circles. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations released a president’s message claiming that it had “significantly trivialized the injustice.”

Responses are divided among prosecutors. Veteran prosecutors have argued that there was no problem because the prosecutor did not force the former assembly member to lie, but others have said that responsibility lay with those working on the front line.

“It the situation remains the same, we may see similar problems again,” a senior prosecutor said.

Prosecutors are mired in criticism and concern over a recurrence of similar problems, as a series of incidents have recently come to light regarding investigations conducted by 10 district public prosecutors offices across the country.