Tokyo Notes

Prosecutor Diplomacy?

The Chinese captain release suggests Japan’s prosecutors have a particularly tough job.

Friday’s decision to release the Chinese trawler captain at the center of accelerating tensions between China and Japan once again leaves the impression of a Japanese administration with an unsteady hand.

Whatever action the Democratic Party of Japan-led government took in responding to China’s ratcheting of tension was likely to be criticized, but the argument for this release—that it was purely a decision made by prosecutors in Naha—was surely a mistaken one for the government to make.

For if it’s true then public prosecutors in Japan must have an awfully tough job. Having to analyze the full diplomatic implications of a case before deciding whether to go ahead with a prosecution is a heavy responsibility.

On this point I am in complete agreement with the China Power blog comment made last week by my colleague Jason Miks, that international relations exceed the job description of a prosecutor.

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If political implications are to be considered by public prosecutors when making their decisions, then what position should they take when investigating senior members of the government, for example? Should a graft case against a cabinet member in a future government be dropped because of the risks of political instability it might imply? Surely this is a dangerously generous discretionary power to leave untouched in the hands of prosecutors.

Of course the open suspicion is that the Japanese government saw to it that the prosecutors released Zhan Qixiong, but did not want to be viewed as having made a humiliating climb down in response to Chinese pressure.

Debate on this matter raged over the weekend.

Adopting attack as the best form of defence, DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada was quick to pick up on contradictions in the position of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party in an NHK TV programme on Sunday. Okada reportedly said that LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki’s suggestion that the skipper should have been quickly sent back to China to avoid tension contradicted LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara’s insistence that charges against the skipper be pressed.

If that is an accurate assessment of what the two senior LDP figures said, then Okada has a good point that the opposition wants to have its cake and eat it.

But this still does little to explain what happened. The fact remains that the mechanism by which the prosecutors’ decision was reached is far from clear, and opposition demands that the prosecutors explain that decision-making process in Diet testimony make perfect sense—so long as the government continues to stick to its current explanation.