The Diet is expected to soon start deliberating on two bills designed to improve procedures involving autopsies when unnatural deaths are suspected. The bills are a welcome step which will help rectify the current situation in which the police disregard most deaths they handle as having nothing to do with crimes and therefore fail to carry out autopsies.
Annually, the police handle the corpses of slightly more than 170,000 people. But according to the National Police Agency, in 2010, only 11.2 percent of all unnatural deaths whose cause was not immediately clear were subject to postmortems due to a lack of trained forensic doctors.
Since 1998, 45 cases have been reported in which the police first believed the deaths were non-crime related, only to determine later a crime was involved. But this is most likely just the tip of the iceberg.
At present, a corpse examiner first inspects a body in which an unnatural death is suspected by looking at its surface conditions. If a crime is suspected, a postmortem will be carried out only after a court grants permission. When crime is not suspected, but the death cause is uncertain, a certified medical examiner is allowed to carry out a postmortem. Otherwise, the police must get permission from the next of kin for a postmortem.
Under the proposed bills, the police will be able to carry out a postmortem without getting permission from the next of kin if they think the postmortem is necessary. Even when a postmortem is not carried out, the police would be able to examine the blood or urine for toxic substance or conduct a computer tomography scan. This represents progress from the current situation. But the primary problem remains the sheer shortage of experts, especially doctors who conduct autopsies.
Japan’s autopsy rate of 11.2 percent is very low compared with Sweden’s 89.1 percent, Finland’s 78.2 percent, Victoria, Australia’s 53.5 percent and England and Wales’ 45.8 percent. This means that Japan has only 1.3 forensic doctors per one million people, much lower than Sweden’s 5.4. But in Japan, most of those qualified are also professors of forensic medicine, with teaching responsibilities as well.
The autopsy rate for Tokyo, Kanagawa, Osaka and Hyogo is about 23 percent because the prefectures have their own medical examiner system. But the rate for the 43 other prefectures is less than 6 percent. The central and local governments and universities need to cooperate and make serious efforts to nurture forensic medicine so that Japan can achieve the goal of increasing the autopsy rate to 20 percent in the near future and eventually to 50 percent.