Tokyo Notes

Justice Minister: My Job Is Easy

Justice Minister Minoru Yanagida tells supporters in his Hiroshima constituency that his job is easy.

It’s often said that the best leaders surround themselves with the best people. But with the jury still out on Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s capacity to lead the country, the beleaguered premier might now be regretting one of his Cabinet picks.

The opposition Liberal Democratic Party’s Diet affairs chief, Ichiro Aisawa, said Wednesday the party was considering submitting a censure motion against Justice Minister Minoru Yanagida over recent thoughtless comments.

At a meeting Sunday in his Hiroshima constituency, Yanagida told supporters that his job as justice minister was ‘easy,’ and he added that he only needed to remember two phrases when stuck for answers in the Diet—‘I refrain from commenting on individual issues’ and ‘We are taking appropriate action based on laws and evidence.’

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku reprimanded Yanagida for his gaffe, prompting the minister to apologize for his ‘inappropriate’ remarks. He maintains, however, that he was speaking ‘among friends.’ While his words may ring true in the political theatre of the Diet, he probably would have been wise to keep his thoughts truly among friends over beer in a Hiroshima okonomiyaki shop.

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The position of justice minister is a key Cabinet post, with every utterance coming under close scrutiny. This is arguably truer than ever now. The ministry is still fine-tuning its new lay judge system (ordinary citizens and judges collaborate on rulings in criminal trials), under which the first death penalty was handed down on Tuesday. The justice minister is ultimately accountable for matters of life and death. Yanagida is also responsible for a major revamp of the prosecution system, following the arrest of a top prosecutor on suspicion of tampering with evidence.

Given the weight of the role, Aisawa and other opposition lawmakers are right in saying that Yanagida is unfit for Cabinet duty. (And given his engineering background, one wonders whether Kan may have handed him the wrong job in the first place).

How Kan must be lamenting the July electoral defeat of previous officeholder Keiko Chiba—a highly respected liberal politician and lawyer who wasn’t prone to such gaffes.