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A force to be reckoned with

by Philip Zitowitz

THE JAPANESE POLICE SYSTEM TODAY: A COMPARATIVE STUDY by L. Craig Parker, Jr.. London: M.E.Sharpe, 2001. 266 pp., $22.95 (paper)

The Japanese police system has come under increasing pressure in recent years. Crimes have become more horrific, and the high level of professionalism generally ascribed to the post-World War II force has been undermined by allegations of drug use, a jailhouse love affair and the planting of evidence on suspects.

L. Craig Parker, Jr.’s behind-the-scenes look at the Japanese police system is particularly timely in view of these events, and addresses a number of interesting issues. What is a typical day like for a Japanese cop on the beat, and how does it differ from that of his American counterparts? How are Japanese police officers trained and organized? How is Japanese law enforcement preparing to combat a rise in organized crime and terrorist activity? What effect has the increased number of foreigners living in Japan had on the police and legal system?

To all outward appearances, the Japanese law enforcement system is a paragon of community-based, service-oriented policing: Police officers make house visits, offer directions, arbitrate neighborhood squabbles, and even counsel distraught mothers. So, what has gone wrong? According to this respected American criminologist, very little. “No system in the world is without its flaws . . . I do not believe that these abuses and missteps, regardless of their widespread, well-publicized notoriety, are symptomatic of a systemic breakdown.”

In comparison, his evaluation of the situation in the U.S. is decidedly negative. According to Parker, the U.S. law enforcement system is an eight-cylinder car chugging along on six cylinders. “We currently have a fragmented patchwork of inefficient, marginally trained and poorly equipped police forces,” he writes.

Nevertheless, Parker is not totally uncritical of the Japanese police force, citing the 1999 case of Stephen O’Toole as an example of how its overzealousness for convictions can lead to gross violations of civil liberties. O’Toole, an English illustrator, got into an argument with a woman and two men over a taxi, and, in a fit of anger, grabbed the woman’s purse and threw it on the ground after it was pushed into his face. The police quickly arrived on the scene, and after they questioned the woman, O’Toole was handcuffed and taken to jail without being given a chance to offer an explanation. He was grilled and pressured to sign a confession that he could not read or understand, charged with “violence with assault,” and kept in detention for 10 days. He did not have immediate access to a lawyer, and when he was finally able to see his girlfriend, they were only allowed to communicate in Japanese (which neither of them could speak very well).

O’Toole’s attorney finally convinced him to plead guilty to avoid an additional 2 1/2-week confinement. He reluctantly agreed, paid a fine equivalent to $96, and was released a day and a half later. Parker notes that “neither Katsuhiko Iguchi, a member of the Japanese Bar Association’s legal review committee, or Hideki Morihara, of Amnesty International, found this episode exceptional.”

“The Japanese Police System Today” is a painstakingly researched crosscultural account that provides a wide overview of the relationships between the police force and the legal and judicial systems. Parker generously peppers his narrative with quotes taken from police officers from Hokkaido to Kyushu and examples gleaned from logs, policy reports, personnel records and historical materials. The result is a fascinating blend of analysis and theory.

In the conclusion to his book, Parker gives a prophetic warning: “While the Internet and other technological advances are heartening, the flip side is that these same tools are providing opportunities for cheaper and deadlier means for criminals and terrorists to create mayhem. These developments make both Japan and the United States more vulnerable to worldwide networks of drug trafficking, organized crime, assaults on computer networks and other criminal endeavors.”

This warning places a heavy burden on law enforcement agencies. And, as difficult as the wholesale transplantation of policing may be between different cultures, new challenges require new approaches. Parker suggests that U.S. police forces take the best of the Japanese system — the training, educational standards and national regulations — to ensure that they are optimally prepared to fight the increasingly sophisticated, technologically facilitated megacrimes of our 21st-century global village.