Many of Japan’s social systems have much in common with the West. However, its criminal justice system is significantly different.
There are often reports in the international media which are critical of Japan’s police, prisons and the death penalty. Some of those reports lack understanding of Japanese culture. But the Economist magazine has produced a well-researched study of Japan’s criminal justice system, which provides useful context when comparing it to the West.
The Economist said that crime rates in Japan are roughy a tenth of those in other rich counties. It says a wallet left on a train is often handed into the police. Great effort is made to rehabilitate criminals, especially young people who are caught up in minor crime. This means that Japan has a low prison population in comparison to the USA and the United Kingdom.
The problem the Economist identifies is an over reliance on confessions, which it says are seen as the “king of evidence”. Almost everyone who confesses to the police is found guilty but some people confess by mistake or under duress. This causes miscarriages of justice. For example, Keiko Aoki spent twenty years in prison after she confessed to killing her daughter in a fire. The fire was in fact caused by an accident and she was released from prison in October.
Japan still uses the death penalty. The opposition Democratic Party wants to abolish it but they have little power. However, there are plans to improve the safely of convictions. For example, by forcing the police to make audio recordings of all interviews with suspects.
The relationship between prosecution and defence lawyers is also under review. The aim is to ensure more robust legal argument. The Asia Pacific Journal claims Japanese prosecutors have a tendency towards tunnel vision which leads them to dismiss evidence that is inconsistent with their preferred outcome as irrelevant, incredible, or unreliable.
The international human rights advocacy group, Amnesty International also has concern about Japan. Its East Asian researcher Shoji Hiroka asks how locking someone up in a cramped cell, alone for decades can ever be justified. He asks: “Does the Japanese criminal justice system guarantee fair trials and provide enough safeguards against forced confessions? And if the risk of executing the innocent is always present, will there ever be enough safeguards?”
His conclusion: “Japan’s criminal justice system is still deeply flawed and conditions on death row remain inhumane.”