Crime and Punishment in Japan

Richard Lloyd Parry formerly the Tokyo correspondent of The Independent and now the bureau chief for The Times, has written the definitive book on the tragic murder of Lucie Blackman, People Who Eat Darknesswhich was recently released in the US to rave reviews. He will speaking tonight at Good Day Books at 6:30 pm in Tokyo,  on the book if you have time to go.

On May 10th, 2012 Richard Parry and Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice,  spoke at The Economist Corporate Network on the subject Crime and Punishment: The Yakuza, deadly violence and justice in contemporary Japan. The two journalists are friends and shared contacts and information while covering the disappearance of Ms. Blackman.

Richard has reported from twenty-seven countries including Afghanistan, Kosovo and Syria. In Japan, he covered three major crime cases, such as the case of Shoko Asahara, leader of Aum Shinrikyou, the cult that released sarin gas inside the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 12 people and injuring thousands of others.

Lucie Blackman vanished on July 1st 2000. Richard Parry covered the case from the first week and it  became the subject of his book People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman, (2011) which was named Book of the Year in the Guardian, Economist and New Statesman. Richard also covered the murder of Lindsey Hawker, another young British English teacher in Chiba in 2007.

The crime rate in Japan seems incredibly low, but at the talk this May 10th (2012) Richard and Jake politely disagreed on what the reasons are for Japan’s low crime rate and the competence of the Japanese police. These are some highlights of the talk.

What happens in Japan from the moment somebody is arrested?

Richard Lloyd Parry said that for the Japanese police, the prosecutors and the judicial system, the moment of arrest is the climax of the media interest in anyone’s crime. The arrest gets more attention than the filing of charges or even the criminal trial. The reason for that is that, “in Japan, once arrested, it’s all over,” he explained. Most people are arrested and charged. Depending on the type of crime, “about 99% of those are criminally convicted,” he said.

“There are exceptions from time to time. But for most people, when the cuffs go on that’s a guarantee that you are going to go down,” he said.

“And so the attitude of journalists reflects this. The arrest is news, and the story is over. An arrested suspect being charged is not such big news. If a criminal suspect being convicted at the end of the trial, is acquitted like Mr. Ichiro Ozawa recently, it is news.” But conviction is generally what one would expect. This is reflected in the way that the public and lawyers regard defendants in Japan, Richard Parry said, “for practical reasons one is not innocent until proven guilty.”

“When an individual is arrested, he/she is no more referred to as the conventional -san but -yogisha, meaning criminal suspect.”

Richard Lloyd Parry said that the Japanese would admit that there is a high conviction rate, “but they would argue that the reason for this is because they (the prosecutors) only charge people who are guilty.” “Guilt or innocence is something that is established not publicly in court rooms, but behind closed doors, in secret, by the police and the prosecutors.”

How is the law enforced? 

From the three major crime cases Parry has covered, including the murder of Lucy Blackman (21, when she was allegedly murdered by a Japanese national, Joji Obara), “none of them reflect well on the Japanese justice system, and particularly on the Japanese police. As a façade, the Japanese police are uniquely successful.” But he said that there is a lot of anxiety among Japanese people about crime, “and maybe crime is under-reported.”

Parry said that indeed, drug dealing, burglary are offences that are “between 4 and 8 times lower in Japan than they are in the West.” Violent crime is also rare, “the Japanese police take credit for it, they believe that because Japan has the world’s lowest crime rate, they are the world’s greatest crime fighters,” he said, joking.

The true reason for Japan’s low crime rate, according to Mr. Parry, is not thanks to the law enforcement agencies but thanks to the Japanese people who are respectful of one another and non-violent, “not because of, but despite the frequently disgraceful performance of the Japanese police,” he explained.

“Individually, the Japanese detectives are charming, dedicated, hard working, sincere and very decent, however as an institution, the Japanese police are arrogant and frequently incompetent,” Mr. Parry asserts.

The Japanese police are very good at “community policing”, at the local level. Helping confused old ladies, and giving the reassuring impression that everything is under control. But looking at ordinary crime, they are “lamentably ill equipped, unimaginative, prejudiced, bound by procedure, and they have never been tested by serious case of international terrorism.”

According to Richard Lloyd Parry, one of the weaknesses the Japanese police are criticized for is that when Lucy Blackman vanished, they did not take it seriously, because of the work she was doing. She was a bar hostess in Roppongi,which the Japanese police consider a shady occupation. They failed to protect a citizen against crime, because of their prejudices. Estimated hundreds of victims raped by Jioji Obara did not report it to the police, according to Richard Lloyd Parry. “For the police, a woman who is doing that kind of job and is sexually assaulted, she should not be surprised.” In the book, Richard does note that there were several complaints about Obara before Lucie vanished, and the manslaughter of Carita Ridgway should have sent off the alarm bells in the 90s.

The Japanese police press club system does not allow foreign newspaper reporters to attend the press conferences at a rule and they are kept out of the information loop. This made it extremely difficult for the non-Japanese reporters to understand how the investigation was unfolding.

Authors Jake Adelstein and Richard Lloyd Parry in Tokyo. Richard is standing on a keg of beer to appear taller. Not really.

Jake Adelstein, who was a reporter for Japan’s largest newspaper during the Lucie Blackman case and who wrote a chapter on it in Tokyo Vice, also participated to the same breakfast gathering, and spoke about crime and the Japanese mafia. Jake was a member of the Japanese Police Press Club, when he was a crime reporter at Japan’s largest newspaper organization, the Yomiuri Shinbun.

Jake compared Japan’s declaration of war on the yakuza in 1964, to the US’ “war on terrorism”–long and not very effectual.  He said that the latest statistics on the number of yakuza, or anti-social forces, is 80,000 yakuza overall in Japan. Of them the Yamaguchi-gumi, with 39,000 members is the largest, then the Sumiyoshi-kai, which has its offices in Ginza, with 12,000 members. The Inagawa-kai, which has its office right opposite from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Roppongi, with 10,000 members.

 Jake explained the audience that, the organized crime syndicates are “licensed,” in a sense. The public safety commission has set criteria to determine whether a group is a “designated organized crime group,” and once the status is achieved, the group is subject to stricter regulations than a non-designated organized crime group, such as the Towa-kai or the Kanto-rengo, who represent the “modern yakuza”, he said.

In the Japanese society, you have the front companies, the yakuza themselves, the police, the politicians and the foreign mafia whom they work with, he explained.

“The power base of the yakuza is strongly political,” he said, “the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was selected by the Yamaguchi-gumi to be their official supporting party in 2007. The Inagawa-kai joined later on. When the ruling coalition of the DPJ sided with New People’s Party, one of the first thing they did was to appoint Mr. Kamei Shizuka to be the Minister of Financial Services.” Kamei is famous amongst the police forces for being a former national police agency bureaucrat with shady connections.  Adelstein noted, “Mr. Kamei also is on the record in the National Diet for receiving the equivalent of 5 million dollars  paid in his account from a Yamaguchi-gumi boss, which he claimed it was on behalf of his constituents. He has a history of associating with the Yamaguchi-gumi bosses throughout his career and receiving political donations from them.” And when the current ruling party  put him in charge of Japan’s Financial Services, it did not generate great confidence in Japan’s initiatives to make its financial market “clean.”

“Seiji Maehara, who was once Japan’s Foreign Minister, Japan’s face to the West, is currently looked at by the prosecutor’s office, because he received several payments from Jun Shinohara, who was a advisor to the Yamaguchi-gumi Goto-gumi,” Jake explained.

“Recently, one of the supporters of current Prime Minister Noda, and other big political donors, got arrested for helping yakuza to falsify their parking records.” He explained.

These are the people who are ruling Japan. They are tied to those they are supposed to be driving out of Japan’s financial industry.

Another thing where the yakuza are involved in is the credit card fraud. “There were several cases in the past when they forged false American Express cards, when someone went to a sex shop and used their American Express cards, paid for their bill, the information was stolen and stored and counterfeited.” He explained.

There are 22 recognized organized crime groups, they all have their own emblems and their headquarters are all listed on the National Police Agency’s homepage. They are not hidden.

Jake said that Japan has a fascination for yakuza. The yakuza portray themselves as noble outlaws, basically enforcing street justice. And if you asked a yakuza, they would say that one of the reasons for the crime rate is so low in Japan is because they keep the streets “clean.” They would say they are “the second police force.”

The yakuza have an internal code of conduct. They can be expelled from their group is they sell drugs. “They are selling drugs all the time, but if they get caught committing theft, petty theft, robbery, sexual crimes, they are expelled. “In this sense they are keeping people’s general sense of peace,” he explained.

In 2008, the yakuza had at least 950 front companies inside of Japan, many in the field of real estate, urban corporation, finance, private companies doing temporary staffing, goodwill groups, investment firms.

“The traditional Japanese yakuza have changed a lot, especially after 2007, a moment in history when they went so bad that the National Police Agency’s annual report on crime said that ‘the Japanese mafia had made such incursion in the Japanese financial market that they have threatened the very basic of Japan’s economy.’ They invest in the stock market, they buy real estate, establish their own investment funds,” Jake explained.

Jake added that, in a book written from the side of the detectives, in the Lucy Blackman case, “in general, the polices attitude towards sexual crime, stalking, have been very bad.” He says that “Japan has a very misogynistic society. For sexual assault, women’s stalking, the police until now, and even currently are very bad at listening to the complaints of the women.” He notes, “As more women are joining the police force, maybe this will improve,” he added, “at least the NPA has the goal to by 2030 have at least 10% of the detectives being women.”

The Chinese mafia moving into Japan is a myth perpetrated by the yakuza and the police. Adelstein said that saying that is a convenient escape goat for everyone, the yakuza could say: “If you think we are bad, wait until the Chinese come.” That’s why the yakuza fanzines have a section on “foreign crime,” and the tone is to say that: “if it was for us, you would be dealing with those ‘evil foreigners’.” So the Chinese mafia has no real presence in Japan. They are convenient when someone needs to be killed. The yakuza can bring them inside Japan, and then be sent back to China.

Richard Lloyd Parry believes that “corruption is institutional in Japan,” meaning that the vast sums of money comes to the police from the Treasury. “I think that is a form of corruption. I am very skeptical of the figures, released by the police. My assumption is by large that they are the least conservative estimates of crime level.” The crime is pumped up where possible to create the sense that this is a terribly dangerous crime lead society in which you need a police with lots of large and new equipment and funding to protect us.

According to Jake Adelstein, the Japanese police, as far as the Tokyo Metropolitan Police go, are not corrupt.

He said that what is surprising in Japan is that there is no background checks to work in a nuclear power plant. It is very well documented that many yakuza have been in and out of nuclear power plants over the past years.

“Japan has no real sense of security, in another country, you wouldn’t want criminals to be working in a nuclear facility handing dangerous materials. But in Japan, the authorities are still debating whether having a background check on the nuclear power plant workers. And even if they have a background check, and the workers turn out to be yakuza or criminals, that doesn’t mean they will be banned from working there.”

Jake Adelstein’s detailed review of Richard Parry’s book was published in The Literary Review.  It also explains his take on the Japanese police investigation and his own obsession with the Lucie Blackman case.

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27 thoughts on “Crime and Punishment in Japan”

      1. Thank you! I found most of the typos. This is what happens when you have an assistant editor who spent 12 years writing in Japanese and has terrible English grammar and a chief editor who speaks French, Japanese, and English but writes in French as her native tongue. Together we equal 3/4th of one editor–especially when rushed. Thanks for letting us know!

        1. Yes, a great article. But under what circumstances could one possibly need an “escape goat” (fifth para from the end — a typo that slipped through the net)? 🙂

      1. Well, you still need a comma after the third word of the post:

        Richard Lloyd Parry[comma here] formerly the Tokyo correspondent of The Independent and now the bureau chief for The Times, has written the definitive book on the tragic murder of Lucie Blackman, People Who Eat Darkness, which was recently released in the US to rave reviews.

        In these cases commas come in pairs: they set off the dependent phrase. This is true in French as well as English.

  1. The underreporting of sexual assaults sounds about right. I read about how poorly rape was reported, between officers shrugging off women’s complaints to family’s desire to hide the shame of rather than come out and convict a criminal. Think I read it in a NYT article like 8 years ago.

  2. “Richard is standing on a keg of beer to appear taller. Not really.”

    I was struck by that in the first photo. Jake is pretty tall I believe, so Mr. Parry much be the tallest journalist on Earth.

  3. “Jake explained the audience that, the organized crime syndicates are “licensed,” in a sense. The public safety commission has set criteria to determine whether a group is a “designated organized crime group,” and once the status is achieved, the group is subject to stricter regulations than a non-designated organized crime group, such as the Towa-kai or the Kanto-rengo, who represent the “modern yakuza”, he said.”

    I’ve understood this for years, but it never fails to jolt me when I read this absurdity.

  4. Jake

    Care to comment on the arrest of an 18-year-old American in the strangling death of an Irish exchange student? Not much investigative work involved (guy found standing next to dead body). But how is this sort of thing viewed in Japan? Does anyone pay much attention since both are gaijin? I’ve read the guy is facing 10-15 years in prison, if charged and convicted. Sounds pretty light. Would victim be viewed as loose/deserving for going to the guy’s hotel room after rap concert. Difference between how young and old in Japan view these matters?

      1. Jake

        You might be interested in the case:

        http://www.japanprobe.com/2012/05/26/irish-woman-found-dead-in-tokyo-hotel-room-two-americans-arrested/

        The young man found next to the dead body in the hotel was charged with “準強制わいせつ罪, not murder. I would imagine from reading the Parry’s book that the suspect could eventually charged with murder if ironclad DNA evidence is produced. I wouldn’t have understood this if I hadn’t downloaded the book last night and read it cover to cover. I found the whole Japanese criminal process fascinating, and not totally unexplainable, tho far different from Anglo-Saxon procedure. The fact that 99% of criminal suspects are convicted in Japan doesn’t, by itself, make it seem less workable than the A-S process where a high number of totally innocent people are charged and tried on the skimpiest evidence. The A-S process it appears to me, is much more subject to manipulation and political considerations.

        The linked article above generalizes, on what evidence I don’t know, that American hip-hop/rap artists commonly conspire to spike the drinks of female fans, and then to take them back to their hotels. If true, this puts them in the general class, at the least, of creeps like Joji Obara. The fact that one of the suspects was a dancer associated with the hip-hop artist whose concert these women attended was a suggestion that the crimes were associated directly with the concert performers. This Ninjaj character, the star of the show, was prompted to deny this.

        There are ‘people who eat darkness’ everywhere. Japan may have more than their share, but I am not sure even of that.

        BTW, the Parry book was excellently written, as was yours.

        I live in rural Arizona. The very idea of living in uber-crowed Toyko makes me squirm, fascinating as it sounds.

        1. I am interested in the case. Thank you for the link and the high praise for Richard’s book and mine. Uber-crowded Tokyo can still be a very pleasant place to walk through–you can avoid the crowds if you try or lead a very strange life. 😀

  5. Wasn’t Obara a Sumiyoshi-kai associate? Also, about crime and punishment: My Japanese friend told me about how a guy he vaguely knew who got nailed for trying to break into a vending machine. The guy got arrested by the cops and subjected to Gitmo-style interrogation including getting pimp-slapped and deprived of sleep and food until he signed something that he thought was a simple confession, except that it was actually him signing away his right to a speedy trial. He spent most of the next year of his life in some kind of juvy without even being charged.

  6. I have just been threatened with violence in Tokyo if I didn’t pay money – where do I report serious crimes against foreign visitors?

  7. I don’t know how I ended up here. I’m looking for how crime and punishment changed over time in 9th century Japan. There is NOTHING on that on the Internet. Seriously.

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