Japan is notably one of the safest countries in the world, and holds one of the lowest crime rates. Japan also boasts a conviction rate that extraordinarily surpasses 99%. This basically translates to one thing: if you are prosecuted, then you will almost certainly be guilty.
But does that necessarily guarantee safety and justice? Or is it all just our Western interpretation of a society that simply has less crime than what we’re used to?
What is it about Japan that makes it seem so safe? And how does the Japanese police force and criminal justice system really operate in order to maintain such a legendary status?
The Safest Country in the World...?
We often hear Japan praised for being the “safest country in the world.” Visiting Westerners brag about being able to leave their doors unlocked. An unaccompanied cell phone or purse holding someone’s table at a coffee shop stirs a sensation of shock and awe. And we can’t imagine leaving our bicycles outside while we grab a meal with friends...unchained.
Is Japan really the safest country in the world? Or are other countries just so used to living amongst so much violence and hostility that the mere decrease of its presence shows up in our minds as the equivalent of the "total absence" of?
When asked on a popular Japanese blog, a lot of Japanese citizens gave their own opinions. Not surprisingly, and given Japan’s history of cultural preservation and homogeneity, one of the top reasons believed to account for this low crime rate is Japan’s strict immigration policy. Many stated the lack of conflicting cultural views greatly decreasing incidences for racially or religiously charged hate crimes.
Another reason given was the lack of guns, and the Japanese people’s general aversion to violence, especially after the Second World War when many people pledged peace. And yet another, while sad is statistically true, is the high suicide rate, causing some to believe that a person would first kill themselves before killing another.
While none of these take the title of the absolute reason for Japan’s low crime rate, they do offer an inside look into factors that do influence whether or not a crime is committed and how, as well as an insider’s perspective on why they think it is so.
(JP) Link: Why is Japan’s Crime Rate So Low? Strict Immigration Laws and Culture Cited as Possible Reasons
Yet according to Business Insider Japan, the Think Tank Institute for Economics and Peace ranked 31 countries according to their ‘peace degree,’ evaluating statistics such as homicide rate, political terrorism, and the number of deaths due to civil war. Japan did not rank first, It didn't even make the top five.
The 2018 Global World Peace Index actually ranks Japan at 9th place, with a whole 8 other countries preceding it in safety and Iceland stealing 1st for a lengthy 11 years in a row.
(JP) Link: Top 31 Safest Countries in the World
日本の順位は？ 世界で最も安全な国 トップ31
To further shock your socks off, in a following survey which ranked countries according to lowest crime rate in general, Japan was ranked number 10.
(JP) Link: Top 20 Countries with the Lowest Crime Rate in the World
While yes, top 10 is certainly a coveted position and indeed something to be proud of, it doesn’t quite live up to that rumor of being THE best. Yet somehow, for some reason, that is the image that repeatedly plays in many people’s minds. Why?
The Legendary 99.9% Prosecution Rate
Aside from the obvious lack of public displays of aggression and Japanese society generally being peaceful and disciplined all around, one of the biggest reasons for this view is likely the impossibly high conviction rate of a staggering 99.9%. That’s basically every criminal, EVER, being convicted. But how is this even possible? Is the Japanese police force really that good?
Well, one thing appears to be certain. With a rate that high, it seems quite plausible that once you are prosecuted, then you will almost certainly be guilty, even if you’re not.
(JP) Link: The Criminal Justice System of Japan
年齢のとなえ方に関する法律 - Wikipedia
Case vs. Accident, and Dignity vs. Justice
A huge factor influencing whether or not a case will be brought to prosecution is whether or not it can be considered a case at all. Before being brought to court, an incident must first be classified as either an intentional crime or an accident. But what about in the event of a victim where the suspect is unknown?
This has become a touchy subject at it has been found that in many such cases, it is common for the incident to be regarded as an "accident", even in some cases where victims’ bodies are found with telltale signs of a struggle, such as stab wounds and bruises. But why do this? What about justice?
Strangely, this is hardly an offense to many members of a Japanese victim’s surviving family. Unlike in the West, where we might immediately want to cry out for “justice” or “revenge,” the Japanese would in most cases rather save face. For one, most see the autopsy process as invasive and disrespectful to the body of the deceased. Because of this, the families of many victims opt to skip autopsy altogether, and allow an alternative cause of death to be stated, such as suicide, illness, or natural death. There have even been cases in which the police have been suspected of putting pressure on doctors to sign a death certificate without citing an accurate cause of death just to save face. (A recent drama series in Japan called Unnatural, which centered on the work of an autopsy forensics unit, dealt with this aversion to autopsy in detail.)
(JP) Link: The Reason for the Low Crime Rate - Japan is a Murderer's Paradise
低い犯罪率の理由――日本は殺人天国だった - 齟齬
Another reason is the shame associated with having the names of the victim and their families plastered all over the news, and even more so if announced that the killer has not been found. Finally, and unsurprisingly, is the desire to save face by members of the justice system in general, resulting in the courts being able to pick and choose which cases go to trial, often opting not to prosecute in a case in which the defendant’s guilt is not already guaranteed.
This leads to another issue.
To Prosecute or Not To Prosecute
Almost all indictments in Japan lead to guilty verdicts. And with the careers of Japanese public prosecutors greatly depending on their success at securing a confession during interrogation, it is of great importance to make sure that the suspect is not only guilty, but willing to cave in and admit it under pressure. So how are the public prosecutors so sure that the person they arrest is not just guilty but willing to offer that golden confession?
The trick is in the decision of whether or not to prosecute at all, which ultimately falls into the hands of these public prosecutors. In fact, determining whether or not someone is guilty is almost solely decided by these public prosecutors, which some people argue gives them way too much power. That is because with so much on the line and the need and desire to save face, these public prosecutors will usually only pursue a case in which they are very confident, if not absolutely certain, that the suspect will be proven to be guilty - whether that means coercing a confession or not. Very few judges are willing to even consider the possibility of delivering an innocent verdict to a suspect, and even in the case of an incorrect guilty outcome, that decision is extremely difficult if not impossible to reverse in court.
Guilty Until Proven Guilty
This has, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, lead to wrongfully prosecuting an innocent victim, be it through inaccurate evidence or, more commonly, forced confession. The justice system of Japan has on more than one occasion drawn suspicion to itself as relying far too heavily on confessions in its decision making process. While technically it has been argued in favor of the system that, according to Article 38 of Japan's Constitution, "no person shall be convicted or punished in cases where the only proof against suspect is his/her own confession," that has apparently not stopped interrogators from succeeding in securing such confessions from an innocent party before.
A particular case that comes to mind is the cyber terror incident of 2012, which involved multiple death threats made online via anonymous methods and Trojan viruses by a hacker and cyber terrorist. Yusuke Katayama, a former IT professional, lead the Japanese police along on a frightening game of cat-and-mouse, resulting in the prosecution of four innocent victims who were framed by the hacker by the use of Trojan viruses planting false evidence in their devices. Out of the four arrested, two confessed, despite having no involvement in the threats whatsoever, on the sheer basis of being unable to stand the pressure of the interrogations anymore, and understanding that the 99.9% prosecution rate basically marked them as guilty regardless.
Later on, the hacker himself was also arrested, but then let out on bail when another anonymous message was received remotely via PC, claiming that Katayama himself was another "innocent victim" wrongfully arrested by the police. Later on, however, enough evidence was finally obtained to conclude that he was in fact the real hacker, and that he had pre-timed that remote message in an attempt to clear his name and make him appear innocent.
When asked his motive behind this incident, and why he framed innocent people as the suspects, his response was eerie: to purposefully have the police prosecute the wrong people via confession (and once he was arrested, to have them release him, the real criminal), thereby proving the Japanese justice system to be inadequate and revealing all the faults that allowed them to falsely prosecute those people in the first place.
(JP) Link: Yusuke Katayama Sentenced to 8 Years for Malicious Cyber Crime
「悪質なサイバー犯罪」片山被告に懲役８年判決 東京地裁 遠隔操作事件
Why Do Innocent People Confess?
This begs the question: If those four suspects were actually innocent, how did the justice system manage to get two of them to confess to a crime they did not commit?
Some blame the interrogation methods used as being cruel and unfair, including the 23 day detention period without charges or bail. Being kept in what some call out as unfair and inhumane conditions push suspects to admit their guilt, even in the case of innocence, just to get it over with. Some previously convicted innocent suspects have even admitted to being so heavily brainwashed through the process that they had even begun to doubt their own innocence, and had begun to believe that maybe they were somehow guilty after all.
(JP) Link: The 99.9% Rate: Not Something to be Proud Of
There have been several such cases that have raised this concerned calling for further scrutiny of the Japanese justice system and interrogation process. The most recent example is the Ghosn case.
The Carlos Ghosn Case and Japan's "Hostage Justice"
On November 19, Ghosn was arrested on charges of misstating his salary on his annual financial reports over a period of five years, and withholding millions of dollars from Nissan’s financial filings. This high-profile case has seized the attention of citizens and officials alike from around the world due to the circumstances under which he was arrested, as well as his treatment during detainment, and has lead to a widespread public outcry against Japan’s justice system and how they treat their suspects before, during, and after their charges.
Ghosn has been detained since November 19. Consistent with Japanese protocol, he was given 23 days of detention without charge, and has since been formally re-arrested as much as three times, extending that detention period, under the allegation that his “misuse of company funds” has caused harm to the company which calls for strict penalties in accordance with Nissan’s no-tolerance policy. Though having denied the allegations, declaring that he had been “wrongly accused and unfairly detained based on meritless and unsubstantiated accusations,” Ghosn has been held since his arrest and has not been allowed an attorney, has been denied visits from family and friends, and has only been allowed to meet with Japanese diplomats and his Japanese lawyer.
(JP) Link: Is Carlos Ghosn the Modern Day Tachibana Manpei? Details on Japan's Never-Ending "Hostage Justice"
カルロス・ゴーンは現代の立花萬平か 日本が「人質司法」を止められない事情 (1/6)
At the time of writing this article, despite Ghosn’s lawyers applying for his release on bail, and his wife writing a letter to the Human Rights Watch criticizing the system as ‘draconian’ and inhumane, the courts have recently ruled against them, denying his bail and now legally allowing the courts to keep him detained until as late as March 10, 2019. And even after that period is over, Japanese prosecutors are allowed to request one-month extensions if they deem necessary, potentially prolonging his detention even more.
From our Western point of view, where a suspect can only be held for a max of 48-72 hours without charges, this is a clear violation of due process. However, in Japan, it’s merely protocol. Not only are suspects allowed to be held without charges for up to 23 days, as seen in the Ghosn case, in the event of being able to prosecute or extract a confession during that time, the suspect faces the possibility of being re-arrested with new charges for another 23 days.
Under this system, a suspect can be arrested an unlimited amount of times, resetting the 23 day period with each new charge and leading to a seemingly endless cycle of detainment and re-arrests until the suspect caves in and presents his golden ticket in the form of the much-desired confession. This raises suspicion as not only being an overwhelmingly lengthy period of time to hold someone with no charges in such arguably harsh conditions, but also opens the door to a higher risk of police abuse and coerced confession.
It's important to note that this is a common prosecutorial tactic in Japan, and that Ghosn is not the first to be held in this manner. Kagoike Yasunori and his wife, Junko, who were the center of a suspected scheme to obtain funds for their school on a fraudulent basis, were held for 10 months. Indeed, the Kagoikes reportedly sent Ghosn a fleece to help him keep warm in his cell.
(JP) Link: The Kagoikes, Who Know the Coldness of a Jail Cell, Send Ghosn a Fleece
拘置所の寒さ知る籠池夫妻、ゴーン容疑者にフリース差し入れ - スポニチ Sponichi Annex 社会
Regardless of the outcome of this case, it seems there is no getting out of this one for the Japanese justice system. Should Ghosn eventually be released or otherwise found innocent, it is likely that the court would be viewed as having collapsed under pressure, causing them to yield in their original guilty verdict. However, should his detention be further extended, possibly leading to their ever-desired confession, it would invite further scrutiny of the system as well as suspicion of forced self-incrimination.
It remains to be seen how the courts, now under intense international scrutiny, will deal with this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.
Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher and translator for several Japanese companies, Krys now works full time as a freelance artist, writer and translator with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture.
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