A little more than a year ago, Rie Miyoshi, 33, was stabbed to death in her apartment in Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture, by a man who was known to have been stalking her after they broke up years earlier.
Hideto Kozutsumi tracked Miyoshi down based on information, including her married name, read aloud to him by a police officer who had arrested him 17 months earlier on suspicion of threatening her. She had asked the police not to divulge her personal information to him.
After killing Miyoshi, Kozutsumi, 40, killed himself in the apartment.
The incident led police last December to start withholding the names of victims of sex crimes in arrest warrants. The practice spread to prosecutors, who started filing indictment papers in court that identify victims only by their nicknames at work, for instance, in lieu of their real names.
Judges are also mulling the further step of issuing orders to keep defense lawyers from disclosing the victims’ names to their clients.
However, the trend is raising concern that it could be creating an environment conducive to wrongful accusations.
“There are many people who hesitate to file a complaint for fear of retaliation,” said Masato Takahashi, a lawyer working on measures to support crime victims. “I believe it’s acceptable to basically keep victims anonymous in crimes like sexual offenses.”
Victims must be identified at some point in the judicial process in order to establish facts. But there are no uniform rules or guidelines to determine the type of cases where victims should be allowed to keep their identity hidden in indictment documents, leaving it to the discretion of judges.
The anonymity issue has taken many district courts by surprise as judges have to deal with a rapidly increasing number of cases that appear to merit such action.
At a September meeting at the Tokyo District Court, about 20 criminal case judges discussed the anonymity issue.
Some said just withholding the names of victims on indictments won’t solve the problem. Others questioned whether it was appropriate to present a copy of a court ruling to a defendant with the victim’s name withheld.
The cooperation of defense lawyers is essential in keeping the personal details of victims from the defendant, who may be inclined to demand such information.
During their discussions, the judges weighed whether they could order a defense lawyer to keep information identifying a victim confidential if the attorney refuses to comply, even though there is no legal basis for mandatory nondisclosure.
The contents of their discussions were immediately conveyed to the Tokyo prosecutor’s office and three Tokyo-based bar associations.
A veteran judge said: “Showing the degree of our determination itself has meaning. We hope we won’t have to actually issue such an order.”
With the district court’s policy already communicated to prosecutors and lawyer groups, such a gag order can be issued at any time.
At the Tokyo District Court, it has become common for stalking victims to remain anonymous, although so far the court has only allowed such nondisclosure in cases in which the defendants confess.
A lawyer who has worked on a number of criminal trials said: “If we put too much emphasis on protecting the victims, we could end up overlooking cases involving wrongful accusations. I wonder if it’s appropriate to pursue this.”
The judges at the meeting also said anonymity should be granted only when the victim faces the risk of further harm.
Critics point out the danger of leaving the matter up to the discretion of district court judges, when the Supreme Court has not issued a decision.
Lawyers are meanwhile concerned about potential risks the defendant may face if an alleged victim demands anonymity.
“We are worried that there may be circumstances in which the accused cannot defend themselves,” said Kai Okumura, deputy chairman of the criminal defense center at the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.