Two articles from The Economist on bent Japanese criminal justice system, death penalty



Hi Blog. It takes The Economist some time to come to its senses on many things regarding reporting on Japan, but it’s done a fine job this time in this tight little article, on how bent the Japanese criminal justice system is. Read on. The more attention brought to these sorts of injustices, the better. Debito in Sapporo

Criminal justice in Japan
Throw away the key
Japan’s Supreme Court misses a chance to right a 42-year-old wrong
Mar 27th 2008 | TOKYO
The Economist (London), March 27, 2008

IN 1966 Iwao Hakamada was accused of killing a family and setting fire to its house during a robbery. He denied it. But after 19 days of 12-hour interrogations by police and prosecutors, he confessed. He saw a lawyer just three times for a total of 37 minutes. At his trial he said the “confession” had been coerced: the police had beaten and threatened to kill him. Judges noticed discrepancies in the confession, and demanded he redo it—45 times—until they were satisfied.

Mr Hakamada was found guilty in a 2-1 decision. The dissenting magistrate, Norimichi Kumamoto, quit the bench in silent protest. Last year he broke 39 years of silence to denounce the verdict. Requests for retrials and appeals had been denied from the 1970s onwards. But armed with the former magistrate’s words, supporters of Mr Hakamada, who has come to symbolise the rot in Japan’s criminal-justice system, felt their case was strong.

Yet on March 24th the Supreme Court turned down a retrial plea, citing a lack of “reasonable doubt” about the verdict. His lawyers plan to appeal against the decision. As for Mr Hakamada, now 72, he is losing his mind as he languishes in solitary confinement on death row.

Article 34 of the Japanese Constitution guarantees the right to counsel and habeas corpus, but is systematically ignored. Police and prosecutors can detain suspects for 23 days. Interrogations are relentless and sometimes abusive. Prosecutors are reluctant to bring cases to trial without a confession. Indeed, it is considered a first step in a criminal’s rehabilitation. When asked about the country’s 99% conviction rate, Japan’s justice minister, Kunio Hatoyama, corrected your correspondent to state that it was actually 99.9%, because prosecutors only present cases that are watertight.

Slow reform is coming. First, to tackle an acute shortage, the government is to let more people pass the bar exam and become lawyers: at present Japan has a mere 24,000, ten times fewer per head than Britain. Only 7% of students pass the bar exam. Second, a jury system will be brought in next year for serious cases. This will open the judiciary to greater public scrutiny. Third, the police are to introduce procedures for monitoring interrogations (though they rejected proposals to videotape them). All too late for Mr Hakamada.

In a similar vein…
The death penalty in Japan
Just plead guilty and die
Mar 13th 2008 | TOKYO
From The Economist print edition

The wheels start to wobble on Japan’s judicial juggernaut

IT WAS a rarity for Japan: two notable acquittals within a month. On March 5th Mitsuko Katagishi, a 60-year-old from southern Kyushu island, was acquitted of charges that she had killed her brother and set fire to his house. The case against her rested on prosecution claims that she had confessed her crime to a cellmate during months in police detention. The presiding judge chided the police for planting the cellmate and dismissed the evidence as not credible. In a country with a conviction rate of over 99%—and where even defence lawyers urge clients to plead guilty—this was a deep embarrassment.

It follows a farcical trial in February of 11 mainly elderly defendants accused of vote-buying in Kagoshima, also on Kyushu. The trial collapsed when it became plain that the police had fabricated the evidence—though not before one defendant had died and another been subjected to over 700 hours of interrogation and 400 days in detention. All the accused had been ground down until they signed confessions of guilt.

In response to these problems, the authorities have closed ranks. Japan’s justice minister, Kunio Hatoyama, argues with casuistic skill that the vote-buying case cannot be described as a false prosecution: that would imply the real culprits are still at large when, happily for all, there are no culprits at all. But such complacency is wearing thin. Two changes are afoot in Japan’s criminal-justice system. One is the introduction next year of trials in which a lay jury of six will join three judges to adjudicate in criminal cases, with convictions secured by majority vote. This may encourage more popular involvement in the criminal-justice system. The other is the emergence of establishment figures prepared to question the shortcomings of that system, and especially of the death penalty, which means victims pay an irreversible price for miscarriages of justice.

Shizuka Kamei, a former chief in the National Police Agency and now a member of the Diet (parliament), describes Japan’s high conviction rate as “abnormal”. The police, he says, are under more pressure to find any culprit for a crime than to find the real one. To save face, senior officers are reluctant to highlight mistakes made by subordinates. Worse, prosecutors are not bound to disclose material that they choose not to use in court. Many false prosecutions never come to light.

The notion of being innocent until proven guilty is not strong in Japan. Mr Hatoyama calls it “an idea which I want to constrain”. But confessions are important and the courts rely heavily upon them. Apart from helping secure convictions, they are widely interpreted as expressions of remorse. A defendant not only risks a longer sentence if he insists he is innocent, he is also much less likely to be granted bail before trial—often remaining isolated in police custody, without access to counsel, for long enough to confess. Toshiko Terada, a private lawyer, calls this hitojichi shiho—hostage justice. Perversely, where little supporting evidence exists, the system helps hardened criminals, who know that if they do not confess they are unlikely to be indicted. Innocents, on the other hand, may crack—as in the Kagoshima case, or in a notorious 2002 rape case when the accused confessed under pressure but was released last October after the real culprit came forward.

Growing concerns about such miscarriages have helped forge an unlikely parliamentary alliance between politicians of the left pushing to abolish the death penalty, Mr Kamei (who in other areas is an arch-conservative) and Koichi Kato, a former secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Last year Japan executed nine people, compared with America’s 42; it also has 106 people on death row. But its murder rate is only one-fifth that of America so its execution rate is roughly comparable. Some of Mr Hatoyama’s predecessors have been unwilling to sign death warrants, but in the past 18 months executions have leapt (see chart), including several accused who were elderly and infirm.

Executions take place in extreme secrecy under the auspices of the Justice Ministry. Prisoners are kept in near-isolation and are not usually informed that their time is up until less than an hour before the sentence is carried out—often after waiting for decades. The names of those executed were made public for the first time only in December. Not even Diet members may inspect a working gallows, and many people do not know that hanging is Japan’s method of execution. Bureaucratic secrecy has served to suppress debate about the death penalty—and give ordinary people a sense that justice is something best left to the authorities.

3 comments on “Two articles from The Economist on bent Japanese criminal justice system, death penalty

  • I am studying at a law school in Japan and we learn that people cannot be convicted on confessions alone. There is a section in the Japanese criminal code which says this. However the reality is, obviously, very different. We haven’t touched on these miscarriage of justice cases in class. Thanks for the articles – they have made me want to find out more about the reality of the japanese criminal justice system.

  • Looks like sometimes they’re not severe enough:

    Briefly: Man held after body parts found


    Police on Monday arrested a 48-year-old man in connection with the murder of a Filipina woman after body parts turned up in Tokyo.

    Police are questioning Hiroshi Nozaki about the cause of death of restaurant employee Honiefaith Ratilla Kamiosawa, 22, whose lower torso was found last Thursday in the Odaiba apartment of Minato Ward that they shared with several other Filipinas.

    Nozaki was arrested in 2000 and sentenced to 31/2 years in prison for dismembering and abandoning the body of another Filipina.

    Investigators on Monday found a suitcase containing more than 10 body parts in a coin-operated locker in the World Trade Center Building in Minato Ward’s Hamamatsucho district.(IHT/Asahi: April 8,2008)


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