Japan’s low autopsy rate may leave murders undetected



Chisako Kakehi awaits trial. She is dubbed the Black Widow, after the spider that eats its mate.

Arrested on suspicion of murdering eight lovers to inherit their wealth, her case is notorious in Japan as much for its body count as for the shortcomings of the investigation.

It is reported that no autopsy was performed on six of those eight at the time of death, a situation experts say points to a flawed system. They say the country’s low postmortem rate may mean criminals are getting away with murder.

In 2014, 11.7 percent of “unusual deaths” — the term used for cases in which cause is not immediately clear — resulted in autopsies, National Police Agency figures show. That compares with 40 percent in England and Wales in 2014. And in Sweden, autopsies are performed on 95 percent of “unclear” deaths, according to the National Board of Forensic Medicine.

“The low autopsy rate means there is a higher chance crimes are being overlooked,” said Hirotaro Iwase, professor at the forensic medicine department of Chiba University.

Despite government pledges to increase the autopsy rate to 20 percent by this year, the figure remains around half that. Iwase attributes this to a shortage of forensic specialists as well as budget cuts at public universities, which carry out most postmortems.

Some university forensic departments are on the verge of collapse: Twenty out of Japan’s 47 prefectures have only one professor performing autopsies, according to the Japanese Society of Forensic Medicine.

In the Kakehi case, police initially concluded her previous partners died from illness. Her arrest only came after they discovered her most recent husband, 75-year-old Isao Kakehi, died from cyanide poisoning. They reviewed the earlier cases and found a pattern.

The 69-year-old has been charged with three murders and one attempted murder. Police investigated four other cases but ultimately could not find sufficient evidence to charge her, media reports have said.

According to OECD data on safety published in 2015, the homicide rate, or the number of murders per 100,000 people, was only 0.3 in Japan. It was 5.2 in the US, 0.6 in France and 0.5 in Germany.

There were 933 murders and attempted murders in 2015 in Japan, police figures show, with the number declining since 2004. However, the low autopsy rate may be hiding the true figure, experts say.

“I believe crimes would be less overlooked if there is a system where autopsies are conducted on bodies where the cause of death is unclear even if the cases are not suspicious,” said Shinichi Kubo, a forensic scientist at Fukuoka University.

Hidemichi Morosawa, an expert on police investigations at Tokiwa University, suspects part of the problem is that the police prefer to avoid the burdensome workload demands of murder cases.

“Police should send as many bodies as possible for autopsies” to increase the chances of detecting foul play, he said.

But because of the shortage of qualified forensics staff, police with more than one corpse needing urgent examination often have to drive hours to other prefectures to get autopsies performed.

Three men died before police in 2010 arrested Kanae Kijima, who allegedly killed her boyfriends by carbon monoxide poisoning — she drugged her victims and then lit charcoal burners in a confined space as they slept.

The police initially concluded the first victim had committed suicide, as burning charcoal was a common form of suicide, and therefore they did not conduct a postmortem. Kijima was eventually sentenced to death.

And in 2007, when teenage sumo wrestler Takashi Saito died during training, the police initially attributed it to heart failure. His parents, suspicious of the circumstances and apparent wounds on his body, demanded an autopsy, which determined he had been beaten to death.

Performing autopsies is arduous and can take up to two days if a body is badly damaged, Iwase said, adding that specialists face a high risk of contracting Hepatitis C or HIV.

And despite such challenges, forensic scientists on university salaries often earn less than doctors working at even small hospitals and must juggle their autopsy work with academic research and teaching.

Police have been beefing up the number of officers qualified to conduct visual postmortem inspections, jumping to 340 last year from 160 in 2008, according to the NPA, the police agency.

They must have more than 10 years of experience in murder cases as well as 10 weeks of special training, said Kazuhito Shinka, who heads the NPA division supervising postmortems.

“It’s important for police to cooperate with doctors with forensic knowledge,” he said.

But Shinka added that it is important to investigate the dead person’s relatives thoroughly for potential motives for murder to come to light.

Iwase said authorities have “lost their motivation” to improve the situation.

“Ministries are running away from their responsibilities and they’re avoiding budget requests. As a result, the autopsy rate does not improve,” he said.

In a sign lessons are being learned from the Kakehi case, from April police will conduct toxicology tests on all bodies they handle.

Iwase noted that toxicology tests can help determine the cause of death.

“You cannot detect crimes just by conducting an autopsy,” he said. “You need to fully carry out a toxicology test as well. Otherwise you’ll miss crimes.”

  • Ron NJ

    Either Japan inexplicably has the world’s highest rate of “illegal disposal of a body” or the officially reported murder rate is artificially low. Which is more likely should be obvious to all but those who are fully submerged in the kool-aid.

  • J.P. Bunny

    More autopsies? I can’t see the police and prosecutors agreeing that. Why go to all the trouble of forcing a confession or ignoring evidence if an autopsy will undo all the hard work?