Economist London on corrupt public prosecutors in Japan


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Hi Blog. Here’s an article I spotted last week in my issue of The Economist. Not sure I’ve ever heard of 官尊民卑 referred to below, but I certainly have heard of how skewed towards the prosecution Japan’s criminal justice system is. Here’s one symptom of the problem — falsification of evidence by prosecutors — which came to light only because the judge did the unusual step of bucking the system. Arudou Debito


Japan’s judiciary on trial
Prosecutors or persecutors?
A legal scandal may spark reform of the Japanese judicial system
The Economist London, Oct 14th 2010 | TOKYO

AMONG the four-character idioms that all Japanese schoolchildren must learn is kan son min pi (“respect officials, despise the people”). It defines the traditional relationship of individuals as subservient to the state—among whose representatives none is accorded more authority than the public prosecutor. The great privilege this confers on the role, however, can lead to its abuse.

A run of recent legal scandals, including wrongful convictions and brutal incarcerations, has tested respect for Japan’s criminal-justice system. The latest example, alleged evidence-tampering by a high-flying prosecutor and a cover-up by his bosses, has rallied many who want to see more regard for individual rights and greater checks on state power. The prosecutor in question, Tsunehiko Maeda, allegedly changed the date of a file on a computer disk that was being used as evidence against a woman accused of involvement in a massive benefit fraud. When Mr Maeda admitted this to his superiors, they are said to have ordered him to produce a report explaining how it happened “unintentionally”. On October 11th the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office dismissed Mr Maeda, the chief prosecutor in Osaka’s special investigative unit, and pressed charges against him.

The scandal has hit a nerve. Japan takes pride in one of the world’s lowest crime rates. But it also has a fishily high conviction rate, at 99.9%. That matches China’s and is far above rates in the West (see chart). In their defence, Japanese lawyers say that the country’s under-resourced state prosecution service is only able to bring the strongest cases to trial. Fear of failure, with which all Japan’s bureaucrats are imbued, reinforces a reticence to test weaker cases in court. According to a former Tokyo district court judge, a single courtroom loss can badly damage a prosecutor’s career. A second can end it.

Yet the recent scandals suggest that miscarriages of justice are all too common. So do several quirks of the justice system, which weigh the scales against the accused. Suspects can be held for up to 23 days without charge, for example. They often have little access to a lawyer and none during questioning. Police interrogations commonly last up to ten hours and are rife with mental and verbal abuse. On October 7th a businessman in Osaka produced a surreptitious recording of his seven-hour “voluntary” questioning, in which the police threaten to hit him and destroy his life.

Part of the problem is that Japan has too few lawyers; one tenth the number per head of Britain (see chart, again). That is largely because the government makes it remarkably difficult to become one. For years it set the bar exam pass-rate at around 3%, though it has recently increased it to 25%. This reflects a fear, in a conflict-shy country, that more lawyers will make society more litigious, not more just.

Recent reforms have improved matters a little. A sort-of jury system, introduced last year, has a panel of six citizens review cases alongside judges, who ultimately pronounce on them. This system produced its first acquittal in June. A more important change, says Kazuko Ito, a lawyer specialising in wrongful-conviction cases, would oblige prosecutors to disclose any mitigating evidence. Former prosecutors also urge judges to be more skeptical about the word of prosecutors and the police.

In Mr Maeda’s shabby case, the court threw out much of the evidence and acquitted the accused. Mr Maeda’s supervisors have also been arrested. Now a titillated Japanese public looks forward to prosecuting the prosecutors.

5 comments on “Economist London on corrupt public prosecutors in Japan

  • The Japan Times Friday, Oct. 29, 2010
    No bail for senior prosecutor pair

    OSAKA (Kyodo) The Osaka District Court on Thursday rejected requests to free on bail two senior prosecutors who were charged last week with covering up evidence-tampering by a subordinate in the investigation into a scandal involving government officials.

    Judge Satoshi Ueki turned down the requests filed by lawyers for Hiromichi Otsubo, 57, who once headed the elite investigative team at the Osaka District Public Prosecutor’s Office, and his former deputy, Motoaki Saga, 49. Both were fired upon being indicted.

    Otsubo and Saga will be automatically held for at least two months from the date of their indictment. By law, they can still file an appeal with a three-judge panel at the same court against Thursday’s decision by a single judge.


  • When this case broke, one of the J news shows was interviewing a former police detective (can’t remember his name but he appears often). This “expert” was summing up the case as “one-bad apple” and when the interviewer slightly probed him on the possibility of corruption going all the way up the line, he seemed to become uncomfortable and quickly denied that possibility. This “expert” (and old-boy) is usually very vocal and articulate when it comes to describing crime so when he quickly denied the notion that the police could be corrupt in this case the interviewer seemed stunned and there were several seconds of dead air.

    It was a classic moment in bias reporting and protecting your ass.

  • The bright side is the timing of these scandals: just when the GoJ is considering enforcing the recording of all police and prosecutorial interviews. I’m sure they’ve made it a lot more likely that it will happen; it will be rather hard for Diet members to stand up and say that there is clearly no need for safeguards, and I imagine it’s genuinely changed some minds. I hope so, in any case.

  • It is not just the number of lawyers that is the problem, it is the law itself. The Judge and Prosecutor can reject any evidence they see fit, it is in their power. The defence has no such luxury. Thus if any evidence will be favourable for the defence, ohh look…the prosecutor or judge will have it rejected. Nothing the defence can do about it. Yeah…sounds very fair and “just”!

    Not forgetting there are no Laws/rules for private citizens.

    When I took our estate agent to court, I asked the Osaka Land & Infrastructure Ministry etc etc (long title name) about our case, he said, there is no law for private citizens, so anyone can buy or sell houses. It is considered a private transaction and hence no law. Laws are for companies etc. Private individuals do not require protection from the law…..for the usual “cultural” reasons!!!

    Coupled with this, what laws do exist always have the outcome “balanced”, being ‘just’ or ‘fair’ is not part of the way the system works. Bear in mind the laws in Japan were “forced” onto Japan in the Meiji period and cobbled together from UK, German, and French laws, to appear “civilised” to those pesky Black Ship captains and the countries they represent. (if you look hard enough, you’ll find laws relating to Baths houses etc in the back street of Paris suburbs etc…..I’ve seen/read them, what a joke!)

    Judges and lawyers both attend the same law schools and are ‘groomed’ specifically for the job. Prosecutors and even judges by the time they get to their ‘positions’ most have never actually have never set foot in a court nor have any ‘hands on practical experience. (I also gather one can go straight into the position of being Judge too). In other words, never having “practiced” law, as lawyers must to understand it. Defence lawyers have to get their on their own obtaining their own experience. Thus, not much incentive there either to practice law.

  • Re 官尊民卑, this comment attached to the article is the best IMO:

    [repeating the first three paragraphs here, but if you should read the whole comment as well]

    Interesting article and for the most part, I agree with its conclusions. But it has problems.

    The worst is the opening paragraph. The description of kanson-mimpi is way off the mark: it is not an admonishment to respect or despise anyone, it’s a description of a situation; it’s not taught in schools as part of the curriculum, so most school kids don’t know it; and it’s not a true four-character axiom (it’s a play on one: danson-johi, a description of men being in higher regard than women). The author also implies several causes and effects that under closer scrutiny will not hold water.

    My point is that there is plenty wrong with Japan that needs to be made public and discussed rigorously, and even condemned for its egregiousness. So why bother to roll out this kind of hogwash or employ tired, cliché-like stereotypes (“the Japanese are conflict-adverse”) to make a point, when they only undermine credibility on the points the article gets right.


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