Japan has one of the lowest autopsy rates in the world. That might just be an interesting side note about Japan except for what is being overlooked. The case of Chisako Kakehi, who was arrested on suspicion of murdering eight lovers, six of whom had no autopsy performed, has brought attention to the situation once again. Nationwide, only 11.7 percent of “unusual deaths” resulted in autopsies, according to National Police Agency figures for 2014.
While there is no evidence that large numbers of crimes are being overlooked, the concern is that there might be. Other countries perform autopsies with much higher frequency. Japan’s extremely low rate is far below England and Wales with 40 percent of unusual deaths investigated by autopsy, while in Sweden, 95 percent of unclear deaths have postmortem investigations carried out by forensic specialists.
In many cases, the barrier is respect for the deceased and consideration of the family’s wishes. That is important, but in any unusual or unclear death, there is a chance that crimes are being overlooked. Toxicological analysis must also be conducted. Even when the cause of death appears obvious, it’s best to be sure.
Increasing the rate of autopsies is also important beyond the issue of crime, because autopsy studies help to provide important data about heart disease, Alzheimer’s, aging and rare diseases for which there is insufficient data. Autopsies also help to determine if treatment regimens were effective.
The government should support and encourage autopsies in cases where there is any doubt. Officials have promised to do so but have failed to sufficiently fund and coordinate the system. Most autopsies are carried out at public university forensic departments by doctors and specialists with many other duties. Those departments are typically overworked and woefully underfunded. Nationwide, 20 of the 47 prefectures have only one professor who can perform autopsies. An autopsy is difficult, and specialized work that can take several days to complete.
The police, the public and the families of the deceased have the right to know what an autopsy has found. In the case of teenage sumo wrestler Takashi Saito, who died during training in 2007, an autopsy found that he did not die of heart failure but of beatings taken in the course of training. Living with uncertainty only compounds the grief of a sudden, unusual death. The police and the government have an obligation to investigate such deaths and resolve them completely.
Many analysts say that the low autopsy rate may be hiding the true number of homicides. While those numbers may be small in Japan with its rather low homicide rate, even missing one case because of lack of an autopsy means justice is not served.