Don’t Be Caught Guilty in Japan

photo by tizzie.

LAST WEEK JAPAN’S JUSTICE ministry announced that it hanged three people in February, according to the BBC. The late disclosure highlighted the shroud of secrecy that accompanies death sentences in the country, and added momentum to the argument that Japan is ramping up its system of capital punishment.

And while that was bad news for human rights activists in the region (not to mention the families of those killed, who were notified only after the fact), a recent Economist article points out how it was worse news for innocent people unlucky enough to have caught the ire of the law — or who just happened to be the easiest scapegoat:

The notion of being innocent until proven guilty is not strong in Japan. Mr Hatoyama [the Justice Minister] calls it “an idea which I want to constrain”. But confessions are important and the courts rely heavily upon them. Apart from helping secure convictions, they are widely interpreted as expressions of remorse. A defendant not only risks a longer sentence if he insists he is innocent, he is also much less likely to be granted bail before trial—often remaining isolated in police custody, without access to counsel, for long enough to confess.

[...] Perversely, where little supporting evidence exists, the system helps hardened criminals, who know that if they do not confess they are unlikely to be indicted. Innocents, on the other hand, may crack—as in the Kagoshima case, or in a notorious 2002 rape case when the accused confessed under pressure but was released last October after the real culprit came forward.

In a nation that proves itself to be advanced in most other ways, Japan’s backwards system of criminal law is baffling. Juxtaposed against the current background of nations taking other allied countries to task for their human rights abuses — eh em, China — one has to wonder why there isn’t more international pressure for openness in a supposedly democratic state.


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