Convenience and Criminal Justice in Japan
Foreign Correspondent in Japan, Will Goddard, explores the Japanese Criminal Justice system. He poses that the close relationship between convenience and justice could have damaging consequences.
The outdoor vending machine is a uniquely Japanese phenomenon. They can be found lining the streets of all major cities, small towns, and even conveniently on mountain peaks to refresh weary hikers. They are all left unattended – anywhere else in the world it seems like they’d be broken into nearly instantaneously; thieves gleefully lining their pockets with easily-obtained cash. In Japan, however, they are almost invariably left alone.
The level of safety in Japan is phenomenal. The country’s capital, Tokyo, despite being the largest city in the world, as acknowledged by Bloomberg, is also the safest. Even though roughly a third of all Japanese citizens reside in its sprawling metropolis, the city easily secured first place in The Economist’s 2017 Safe Cities Index; adding yet another prize to a cabinet already bursting with Michelin stars and livability awards. In a country where people routinely leave their smartphones in cafes to secure tables, it is easy to see why Tokyo has amassed these commendations.
This extraordinary public safety comes with a caveat. In the West, crime is typically combated with a large police presence, which often has mixed results. Meanwhile, swift and efficient justice systems seem to be far more effective at deterring criminals than armies of police – a sentiment that Japan has undeniably acted on. Japan’s criminal justice system is one that promises definite action – even to those who would commit a petty crime like robbing a vending machine. Through this uncompromising system, however, the nation has reached an unmatched level of safety in Japanese cities.
Japan’s criminal justice system is one that promises definite action – even to those who would commit a petty crime like robbing a vending machine.
Carlos Ghosn, the former chair of Nissan, was arrested in 2018 and taken to Tokyo Detention House. It was there that cult leader Shoko Asahara, who orchestrated a deadly terror attack on the Tokyo subway, was recently executed. Those arrested in Japan can be held by the police for up to twenty-three days before a charge is required to be brought against them; in the UK and the US, it is just twenty-four hours. Charged with financial misconduct, Ghosn was kept in solitary confinement in a seven-and-a-half square metre cell for a hundred and eight days, and then a further twenty-one days upon re-arrest. With such a long detention period, and limited access to a solicitor, it is no wonder that confessions of guilt underpin eighty-nine percent of criminal prosecutions in Japan.
Attesting to the seemingly authoritarian nature of Japanese prisons, Ghosn’s wife, Carole, said he was only allowed out of his cell for thirty minutes every twenty-four hours. His lawyers reiterated that he was sometimes questioned for up to fourteen hours a day, describing his treatment as both ‘inhuman’ and ‘illegal’. Carole, unable to speak to her husband, recently appealed to President Trump to put pressure on Japan to have him released. She has also described the Japanese authorities as denying the couple their ‘basic human rights’, following a fifth failed appeal to visit her husband.
Ghosn now faces prosecution. The odds seem almost entirely against him; at ninety-nine percent, Japan’s court conviction rate is on a par with China and Russia – both well-known for their human rights abuses and harsh forms of justice. In the West, the average is substantially lower, with both the UK and the US having around an eighty percent conviction rate. Because of this, Japan’s criminal justice system is often the subject of international criticism.
The West, especially the US, seems to take pride in the phrase “innocent until proven guilty”, declaring individuals innocent of any crime of which they are accused until proven guilty in a court of law. This is nowhere better embodied than in the lawyer Atticus Finch’s brave stand in To Kill a Mockingbird. Most memorably, the novel showcases Finch defending a black man against a vigilante mob – a group intent on killing him for being accused of raping a white woman. This principle is the cornerstone of English common law and criminal justice in the West. Not only that, it is also the eleventh article of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The potential threat of more than three weeks of psychological mistreatment and a frighteningly likely prison sentence, if prosecuted, is surely is enough to deter anyone from robbing a vending machine. It seems to me that Japan currently values public safety and convenience over justice and individual freedom. If these values remain unquestioned, those like Ghosn, who have not yet been found guilty, and perhaps those who have confessed under police questioning, despite being innocent, will continue to be detained and imprisoned.