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Japan: When forced confessions lead justice astray

By Flickr user ninja5d

By Flickr user ninja5d

The recent Ashikaga case [en] saw a man acquitted after serving 17 years in prison after being convicted of murdering a child because of inaccurate DNA tests. It has once again brought to light the problem of false confessions used by Japanese police.

In the past, the methods adopted by Japanese cops have been repeatedly criticized after details of exhausting interrogations, long pretrial detention periods and other power abuses (leading to suicide sometimes) were reported by the victims. But despite widespread publicity on these problems, the system hasn't changed.

According to blogger Ukon the problem is the importance given to confession, used in most of the cases as damning evidence, as well as a system that doesn't admit of any objection to authority improperly exercised.

現代の日本社会において、自白偏重の捜査や、自白や状況証拠を根拠として被告を有罪とする刑事裁判が存続している。自白偏重の捜査や、自白や状況証拠を根拠として被告を有罪とする裁判では、人間を孤立させ、国家の暴力に対する異議申し立てを困難にする。民主的な社会を実現するためには、自白偏重の捜査や、自白や状況証拠を根拠として被告を有罪とする刑事裁判を是正し、国家の暴力に対する異議申し立てを実現するための権利や社会的回路を確立していくことが必要だと、私は考える。

In Japanese society, investigations based on suspect confession and trials which convict a defendant relying upon such confessions and circumstantial evidence continue to exist. In these trials, the person is purposely isolated and it is made difficult for them to oppose such tactics by the authorities.
In order to develop a truly democratic society, it is necessary to revise a system that convicts relying only upon investigations based on suspect confessions and circumstantial evidence and establish instead a social environment where the right to object against abuse of power by authority is possible.

The concept of presumption of innocence until proven guilty is not much honored in Japan and conceding benefit of the doubt to a person suspected of committing a crime is rare.
As soon as one is arrested they are immediately portrayed as a ‘suspect’ by the local media (yogisha 容疑者 in Japanese) which undoubtedly sways public opinion in a way that makes it difficult to win back social trust even after being acquitted.

There are many cases where the victims of wrong accusations, like Toshikazu Sugaya in the Ashikaga case above, are shunned by their own relatives because they are considered as one who has soiled the family name.

Blogger akkii points to the cozy relation between cops and media as the prime cause of the problem.

このような冤罪事件は、なぜ起きるのであろうか。それには、警察や検察の自白偏執主義があるからである。そしてもう一つ、その発生に大きな影響を与えるものに警察や検察がするリークがあると考えられる。これは、メディアに向けられたリークである。そして、これがニュースとなり、さも、容疑者や被告人が犯罪者であるかのような錯覚を社会に与えるのである。その結果、これが取調べや判決にハレーションを起こし、反映されてしまうと考えられるのだ。

Why do such cases of false accusation occur? It’s because of the culture of exacting confession which is rampant among both prosecutors and cops. Another element is information leaked by the same prosecutors and cops to the media.
The leaked information becomes news, which impacts on the perception of people towards crime suspects or defendants who will be automatically be perceived as guilty.
Consequently, this ends up affecting the investigation and the trial itself.

Recently other cases where false confessions were used to convict suspects have emerged.
The latest one [en] in December saw the Hiroshima High Court acquitting a Japanese man, for whom prosecutors have asked death penalty, because its confession was found “not credible”.
In December another case, the Fukawa case [ja] dating back to 1967, was reopened because the accusations were based only on the two defendants’ alleged confession and testimony of eyewitnesses.

A blogger expresses his bitterness on the matter.

布川事件:再審開始が確定と報じられ、無実が確定的と聞いた。これもまた自白に問題ありだそうで、なぜか取り調べの録音テープがあるという。検察も警察もいい加減にして欲しいと思うが、それを報道する側も裁判所も問題があると思う別件がある。

About the Fukawa case, I heard that they will reopen the trial and that it's likely that the two will turn out to be innocent. This is going to be another case where confession becomes a problem since the recorded tape of the interrogation still exists. I think it's time prosecutors and police got their act together but media and the courts have their responsibilities also.

Citing article 38 of the Japanese Constitution the same blogger makes clear how the principle of not relying on confession alone does exist in Japan, but is seemingly disregarded.

第三十八条 何人も、自己に不利益な供述を強要されない。
2 強制、拷問若しくは脅迫による自白又は不当に長く抑留若しくは拘禁された後の自白は、これを証拠とすることができない。
3 何人も、自己に不利益な唯一の証拠が本人の自白である場合には、有罪とされ、又は刑罰を科せられない。

Article XXXVIII. No person shall be compelled to testify against himself.
2 No confession shall be admitted in evidence if made under compulsion, torture or threat, or after prolonged arrest or detention.
3 No person shall be convicted or punished in cases where the only proof against him is his own confession.

自白が犯行に結びつく唯一の証拠であるのならば、有罪となる筈も無いではないか。自白が信用できても出来なくても関係ないことではないのか。こんなもの自白偏重とは言わない。関係者は憲法を読んだ事がないのだろうか?
 この国はどうなっているのだろう?

In a case where confession is the only evidence linked to a criminal act, I believe it's quite impossible to declare someone guilty, whether the confession is genuine or not. And [ in the article above] any principle overemphasizing confession is mentioned. Hasn't everyone read the Constitution?
What's happening to this country?

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