By Henry Rogers
Japan has an astonishing 99% conviction rate for suspects going to trial. This has caught the attention of the Human Rights Watch, and the organization has built a report over the past three years examining this astonishing–and concerning–statistic. Titled Japan’s “Hostage Justice” System, the report analyzes the cultural, legal, and systemic issues that lead to injustice. The group has turned over the report to the Japanese authorities and it contains a long list of solutions. Human Rights Watch released this report yesterday on the 25th and held a press conference at the Foreign Correspondence Club of Japan (FCCJ).
The contents of the report
The report breaks down the main reasons for the high conviction rate. These reasons boil down to the denial of bail, coercion of confessions, and the lack of access to lawyers.
Japanese law declares that all accused persons are eligible to apply for bail once it is decided that they will be going to trial and when they are released from the pre-indictment period. When the police arrest a citizen, they are legally allowed to hold that citizen for 23 days until they must release them or decide to take them to trial. The issue with this is the rampant abuse of a loophole used by investigators and prosecutors. Police will split charges up or bring multiple individual charges against a person, but they will only charge them once the 23-day period is up. This allows them to recharge a person and hold them for an additional 23 days. They police are allowed to do this until they run out of charges. Some people are held for hundreds of days– and denied bail the entire time.
Even if a person is no longer trapped in the limbo of this pre-indictment period, they will still struggle to make bail. Judges will typically deem a person “a risk to destroying evidence” and deny their claim for bail. The report explains that around only 30% of defendants are granted bail.
The case of the prosecution in Japan is almost always built upon the confession of the accused. This is partially because prosecutors will only take open-and-shut cases to trial, but mainly because it is ingrained in the legal culture. Investigators know this and getting a confession is essential to their cases. This pressure on confessions has led to a terrible situation where coerced false confessions are common.
The limit to an interrogation is stated in Japanese law as not being allowed to be an “unreasonable” amount of time. This is extremely ambiguous, leading to the abuse of long interrogations. In an attempt to gain a confession during these interrogations, prosecutors and investigators have used intimidation, threats, verbal abuse, and sleep deprivation.
A major issue that plagues the system is prosecutors and investigators tampering with the confessions. A 2011 Supreme Court survey of prosecutors found that one-fourth of them had at one time altered something a defendant wrote or said.
All of this coercion might be avoidable if defendants were given proper access to their lawyers. But during the interrogation, the defendant is not allowed to have a lawyer in the room to advise them or even observe. Building a strong legal defense is made even harder as prosecutors have the ability to legally withhold evidence from the defense.
The report explains that for real progress to be made, the government must pass strong reforms. Some of the changes detailed include allowing lawyers into the interrogation room, holding interrogators accountable, and not allowing police to rearrest defendants.
The press conference
The FCCJ held an hour-long press conference with three esteemed guests: Shinobu Yamagishi, the former president and CEO of the Pressance Corporation who who has fought against this abusive system; Kana Sasakura, a professor and faculty of law at Konan University as well as the executive director of Innocence Project Japan; and Swaroop Ijaz, senior counsel to the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.
All three guests were involved in the development of this report, and spoke about the contents of the report as well as additional insights. Dr. Sasakura made a valuable contribution when she explained that of the last 25 cases that have been exonerated by retrial, 21 were found to have false confessions.
As for former CEO Mr. Yamagishi, he was arrested by the Japanese authorities and charged with embezzlement. He was then held for 248 days before finally being released in August of 2020. He spoke about the terrible conditions that he was forced to suffer and the “mental anguish” that he experienced.
But he also told the press that he was doing great now and had become wiser and stronger from this difficult experience. He also said, light-heartedly, that he was baffled that the prosecutors had a 99% conviction rate at all. In his words, those investigating him did not know what the real world was like and knew nothing about business, resulting in a shoddy investigation.
Yamagishi was found not guilty on all charges.
When asked about what his top tips were for surviving the Japanese justice system, Yamagishi simply responded, “Never give up.” He then recommended those struggling in the process to find something interesting to do — his own method was to tease the guards outside his cell, he joked.
After this the guests answered any questions the crowd had for them and the meeting came to an end.
The full report, Japan’s “Hostage Justice” System, can be found online.