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Embedded Racism: Japan's Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination

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  • Economist: Police Confessions & J justice

    Posted by Dr. ARUDOU, Debito on February 11th, 2007

    Getting back to business as usual on the blog… Thanks to David for the notification.

    Given the honne in Japanese Criminal Justice System of using the Napoleonic system (presuming guilt and having the defendant to prove his innocence–which is why the Right to Remain Silent (mokuhi ken) doesn’t work in Japan), and the special investigative and interrogative powers given the Japanese police, this Economist article about the Suo movie talks about a serious social problem.

    Moreover, although this is something which affects everyone, with the climate of Japanese police targeting foreigners, this is more likely to happen to you if you get taken in for questioning… Referential links also follow. Debito in Wakayama


    Japanese justice

    Confess and be done with it
    Feb 8th 2007 | TOKYO
    From The Economist print edition

    PHOTO: Almost everyone accused of a crime in Japan signs a confession, guilty or not. Credit: Altamira Film

    A TAXI driver in Toyama prefecture is arrested for rape and attempted rape, confesses to both crimes, is convicted after a brief trial and serves his three years in prison. Meanwhile, another man, arrested on rape charges, also confesses to the two crimes the first man was convicted for. He, too, goes to jail and serves his time. Is this a story by Jorge Luis Borges, a case of trumped-up charges from the annals of Stalinist Russia, a trick question in a Cambridge tripos? None of the above. It is a recent instance, and not an uncommon one, of the Japanese judicial system at work.

    On January 26th Jinen Nagase, Japan’s justice minister, apologised for the wrongful arrest of the taxi driver and declared that an investigation would take place. After all, the suspect had an alibi, evidence that he could not have committed the crime and had denied vociferously having done so. But after the third day in detention without access to the outside world, he was persuaded to sign a confession.

    With too many instances of wrongful arrest and conviction, few expect anything to come from the justice ministry’s investigation. But the spotlight has begun to shine on the practices of police interrogation as well as on the court’s presumption of guilt. More and more innocent victims of Japan’s judicial zeal are going public with grim accounts of their experiences at the hands of the police and the court system.

    Now a new film about wrongful arrest by one of Japan’s most respected directors, Masayuki Suo, has just opened to critical acclaim. The movie, entitled “I Just Didn’t Do It”, is based on a true story about a young man who was accused of molesting a schoolgirl on a crowded train—and refused adamantly to sign a confession. Thanks to support from friends and family, the real-life victim finally won a retrial after two years of protesting his innocence, and is today a free man.

    The film, which was premièred in America and Britain before opening in Japan, depicts how suspects, whether guilty or innocent, are brutalised by the Japanese police, and how the judges side with the prosecutors. Mr Suo argues that suspects are presumed guilty until proven innocent, and that the odds are stacked massively against them being so proven.

    The statistics would seem to bear him out. Japan is unique among democratic countries in that confessions are obtained from 95% of all people arrested, and that its courts convict 99.9% of all the suspects brought before them. Prosecutors are ashamed of being involved in an acquittal and fear that losing a case will destroy their careers. Judges get promotion for the speed with which they process their case-loads. And juries do not exist, though there is talk of introducing a watered-down system called saiban-in for open-and-shut cases. Apparently, members of the public are not to be trusted with cases that might involve special knowledge. Those will still be heard and ruled on—as are all cases in Japan today—by judges alone.

    Despite Article 38 of the Japanese constitution, which guarantees an accused person’s right to remain silent, the police and the prosecutors put maximum emphasis on obtaining a confession rather than building a case based on evidence. The official view is that confession is an essential first step in rehabilitating offenders. Japanese judges tend to hand down lighter sentences when confessions are accompanied by demonstrations of remorse. Even more important, prosecutors have the right to ask for lenient sentences when the accused has been especially co-operative.

    It is how the police obtain these confessions that troubles human-rights activists. A suspect can be held for 48 hours without legal counsel or contact with the outside world. After that, he or she is turned over to the public prosecutor for another 24 hours of grilling. A judge can then grant a further ten days of detention, which can be renewed for another ten days.

    Japan’s constitution also states that confessions obtained under compulsion, torture or threat, or after prolonged periods of detention, cannot be admitted as evidence. Yet threats and even torture are reckoned to be used widely in detention centres—especially as interrogators are not required to record their interviews. Accidental death during custody happens suspiciously often. Facing up to a possible 23 days of continuous browbeating, or worse, could persuade many wrongfully arrested people to accept their fate and sign a confession as the quickest way to put the whole sorry mess behind them.


    Japan Times Oct. 13, 2005: An excellent summary from the Japan Times on what’s wrong with Japan’s criminal justice system. To wit: presumption of guilt, extreme police powers of detention, jurisprudential incentives for using them, lack of transparency, records or accountability during investigation, and a successful outcome of a case hinging on arrest and conviction, not necessarily on proving guilt or innocence. This has long since reached an extreme: almost anything that goes to trial in a Japanese criminal court results in a conviction.

    What to do if you are arrested by the Japanese police:


    5 Responses to “Economist: Police Confessions & J justice”

    1. jason gray Says:

      I spoke to a former prosecutor (now a corporate lawyer) recently and asked him about the famed 99+% figure and his simple answer was that they won’t attempt to prosecute any case that’s less than a sure thing (which of course includes a high number of cases with accompanying confessions). So, the amazing fact is not the high conviction rate, but the amount of people who go free despite a probability of guilt much higher than typical “reasonable doubt” standards.

      On a related note, said former prosecutor handled case very similar to the one that forms the basis of Suo’s . In that case, a female student claimed a salaryman touched her inappropriately on a train. The police were satisfied with the story and it went to the prosecutor’s office. But after several in-depth interviews with the victim, she finally broke down and admitted that she made the story up to avoid a make-or-break exam that day… The man was cleared of any wrongdoing.

    2. jason gray Says:

      Sorry, that should’ve read “Suo’s Sore demo boku wa yattenai” with the link to its imdb entry (

    3. Trans-Pacific Radio Says:

      TPR News: Tuesday, February 13, 2007 – Yanagisawa, Ishihara, Nakasone, whaling, and Japan blogs…

      Thanks to Debito Arudo for bringing to our attention a recent Economist piece on the Japanese justice system. It is an excellent read and one of the first times that we have seen issues related to Japan’s judicial system discussed at length in the for…

    4. Mark A Says:

      From various sources, I am aware of this frightening aspect of the Japanese legal system. However, there is hope: on Friday, the Kagoshima District Court acquitted 12 Japanese accused of election vote buying because their confessions were deemed to have been forced and/or fabricated.

      Japan Times article:

    5. A man in Japan Says:

      The thing I wanna know is. Is how can Japan be allowed to get away with all this?? There needs to be pressure put on Japan to change their ways dont you think? The people of Japan can go to any country they want without having to worry about looked at as a “foreigner” and being told to “go back home” because everyone thinks they are so cool! Look people, the only way to get Japan to change is put as much pressure on them as possible. Get them out of the U.N, stop ALL products from Japan coming into our country. If these restrictions were put in place Japan would be in a position where they would HAVE to change the way they treat people. Dont you think so?

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