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Japanese Justice: The Police Detention and Prison Systems

by Gary P. Leupp

Japanese justice officials boast of their extraordinarily high rate of conviction (99.94% in 1994). They imply that this rate results from efficient police work and careful judicial proceedings. When a high profile case (such as that involving the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, or the U.S. Marines in Okinawa convicted of kidnapping and raping a 12 year old girl) draws U.S. media attention to the Japanese justice system, the coverage is generally positive, even admiring. The Japanese case (like that of Singapore) provides a convenient foil for the U.S. system, which critics deploy as they argue for further erosion of defendants' and prisoners' rights in this country.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA) conveys a rather different picture of Japanese justice. What follows draws primarily on JFBA literature in exposing a system which convicts virtually all it indicts, and then denies them basic human rights behind bars.

Police Custody

Japan's police custody system (daiyo kangoku), as described in the Japanese Code of Criminal Procedure, requires that criminal suspects must be brought before a judge within three days after arrest. If the judge decides that the suspect should be detained pending trial, he/she is to be sent to a detention center for up to 10 days. This term may be extended for an additional 10 days, or when special charges are involved, to 15 days. There is no bail bond system.

Article 1, 3 of the Prison Law, meanwhile, allows for a police cell to be substituted for a jail cell. This provision allows the police to detain suspects in police station cells, rather than the designated detention centers, for 23 days (or where special charges apply, to 28 days). Thus police may continue to investigate a suspect while holding him/her in custody, and subjecting him/her to interrogation.

The police custody system, originally instituted in 1908 as a temporary measure to compensate for a lack of detention centers, has been retained because it contributes to the celebrated, high conviction rate. While under custody, suspects are routinely subjected to abuse, including torture, and often denied prompt access to lawyers. Every effort is made to induce confessions. In cases where confessions cannot be extracted, and/or where evidence seems insufficient for conviction, the suspect is typically freed. From April 1993 to March 1994, 35% of arrested suspects considered indictable, but unlikely to be convicted, were released (Wall Street Journal, 12/19/95) . Thus police and prosecutors avoid embarrassment, and indictment becomes tantamount to conviction.

During the police custody detention period, a suspect shares a 10 square meter cell with several other prisoners. Every movement is monitored by a policeman: eating, excretion, washing, etc. Firm rules govern how suspects sit, sleep, and use the toilet. Male suspects are able to leer at female suspects confined in separate cells. Suspects are allowed only one 10-15 minute bath once a week, and a similarly brief daily exercise period. Those who confess receive better treatment than those who refuse to do so.

Suspects cannot make direct phone calls, or contact counsel without permission. The right to access to counsel may, under Paragraph 3 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, be restricted "when necessary for investigation." Lawyers' visits are in any event impeded in various ways. They are denied after "office hours"; and can occur only after the lawyer receives a letter of permission from the prosecutor's office. Counsel is frequently forced to wait several days before being allowed to meet with the suspect; such meetings are usually limited to about 15 minutes; and correspondence between the suspect and lawyer is subject to censorship. Prisoners without counsel do not receive court-appointed lawyers until after indictments have been drawn.

The JFBA has chronicled numerous cases of physical torture inflicted on suspects in police station cells. Kicking, beating, blows to the head, hair-pulling, application of burning tongs to the palms or neck, and beatings with shoes, have not been uncommon. Use of ropes, incense sticks, brooms and other devices have been used as instruments of torture during the postwar period. Denial of sleep, and lengthy interrogations during the day and night, remain common.

While the incidence of torture seems to have diminished in the last couple decades, it continues to occur. In 1981 a man in Osaka accused of accepting a bribe was alternately hit on the head by two policemen, kicked on his legs, beaten on his shoulder, then knocked off his chair. The two officers took turns screaming abuse and accusations into his ears, banged his head on a desk, then beat him some more. He confessed to the crime, only to claim at his trial that the confession had been extracted from him involuntarily. Convicted once, he was acquitted in a second trial.

Some of the ugliest cases of torture have involved foreigners under detention. In June 1994, a 31-year-old Iranian man married to a Japanese woman was held in police custody after being detained in Tokyo for failing to produce a passport. This was during a period when police routinely swept through Tokyo parks, where foreign workers gathered to socialize and look for jobs. Officially, Ahrjang Mehrpooran died in custody from a pulmonary embolism. However, his wife noticed bruises on his head, and blood on his body.

Victims of such torture and involuntary confessions are unlikely to receive redress for maltreatment. They may appeal the decision to detain them to the trial judge, but the judge can make no ruling on maltreatment during the detention. The victim can only appeal to the chief of the police station in which the torture occurred. There is no independent third party committee to oversee the system and impartially handle complaints.

Prison Conditions

As of 1991, there were 200 penal institutions in Japan: 74 main prisons, 117 branch prisons, and 9 work houses. The average daily prison population was 45,749 inmates, including 6,949 awaiting sentence. There were also over 14,000 men and women in detention centers.

By far the greatest number of offenses were burglary (27% of those convicted in 1990) and use of stimulant drugs (26%). Assault (8%) was a distant third. In 1992, there were about 17,000 prison workers, 86% of whom were security personnel. Counseling and social work receive low priority; on the other hand, prison staffs spend an inordinate amount of time censoring books and mail, monitoring visits to inmates, and subjecting inmates to body searches.

In most facilities the latter occur twice daily, when the prisoner leaves the cell for the work house, and upon his/her return to the cell. The search involves probing the anus with a glass tube, then subjecting the inmate to the "can-can" procedure. The naked prisoner must raise his/her arms over his/her head, alternately raising each leg for the guard's inspection, to verify that no objects are hidden in the hands, armpits, mouth, or crotch, and nothing has been affixed to the sole of the foot.

Many institutions require prisoners to march to the work house in military fashion, chanting, swinging arms to shoulder height and goose-stepping. In some, inmates are forced to shout in unison each morning the "Five Principles": Always Be Honest; Sincerely Repent; Always Be Polite; Keep a Helpful Attitude; Be Thankful.

Prisoners usually work 40 hour weeks, and are paid the equivalent of about $ 30 a month. This money cannot be used while the inmate is incarcerated.

Individual cells measure about 5 square meters, while group cells holding up to 10 inmates are from 13 to 16 square meters. Most are unventilated and lack heating; some prisons have special windowless cells. Meals provide barely adequate nutrition, and the lack of protein and vitamins leave inmates susceptible to colds. Meal time ranges from 5 to 40 minutes.

All prisoners wear cotton grey winter or summer uniforms, and are not allowed an extra layer of clothing, or to remove uncomfortably warm clothing, regardless of the temperature. Baths are permitted twice a week, and can last no longer than 10 minutes. All men's heads are shaved.

Prisoners are subjected to numerous forms of petty harassment. Rules require that when prisoners receive books or correspondence in foreign languages, or even containing passages in foreign languages, they must pay to have the material translated for purposes of censorship.

Unsentenced prisoners are not obliged to perform forced labor, wear uniforms, or submit to head-shaving. But they are denied exercise, receiving only two 30-minute exercise periods per week, in violation of Article 21 of the United Nations' Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which specifies that detainees receive one hour of exercise daily. Medical care is grossly inadequate, there being only about 220 doctors for the entire prison and detention center population.

[Gary Leupp is a professor of East Asian history at Tufts University and a long time PLN supporter.]

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