National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Press failing to question the legal process

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

To ring in the new year, TBS Radio’s “Session 22” asked several notable people on Jan. 4 about their predictions for 2018. Michiko Kameishi, a human rights lawyer, commented that she is looking forward to three criminal trials that turn on confessions extracted from suspects. Two of the cases are retrials of persons who have already been convicted and served their times in prison. In both, lawyers convinced courts to retry their clients because the convictions were based solely on confessions they later recanted and which they say were coerced under questionable circumstances.

Police and prosecutors rely so heavily on confessions in criminal cases that they don’t feel the need to go out and gather evidence, says Kameishi, an insight that led to a discussion of the Moritomo Gakuen elementary school scandal that embroiled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last year. Yasunori Kagoike and his wife, Junko, were arrested in July on allegations of fraud in their dealings with government entities as they went through the process of building their new school in Osaka. They’ve been in jail ever since and denied contact with anyone except their lawyers.

Kameishi explained that the reason they are still being detained is that they refuse to talk, which is actually their right. The lawyer thinks that prosecutors have been trying to force confessions out of the couple and haven’t succeeded. The ostensible reason for denying them bail is that a judge has deemed they could tamper with evidence or witnesses while outside, so until the trial begins they are being kept away from anyone, including family members and each other. The real purpose of the bail denial, Kameishi says, is to put more pressure on the suspects to confess. If they do, then the trial can proceed right away, but as long as they don’t, their detention periods can be continually extended until it begins, and that could be months. It’s not unusual for suspects to spend a year or so under wraps. According to Kameishi, lawyers call this practice “hostage justice” (hitojichi shiho).

“The suspects’ lives are destroyed even before they go to trial,” she says. “The idea is to break their silence.” Such tactics often result in enzai (false convictions), and what makes the Kagoikes’ situation special is that the media was covering the case closely last year because the prime minister and his wife were associated with the couple in the past. The judge’s stated reasons for not granting bail to the couple did not make sense to Kameishi because the police spent more than three months collecting all available evidence prior to their arrest. And since the Kagoikes are well-known, it would be almost impossible for them to flee bail and disappear, even it they wanted to.

Even a former judge said he found these circumstances strange. Interviewed about the case last November on a TBS-BS news show, Tomoyuki Mizuno, now a professor at Hosei University, said he thought the Kagoikes’ detention was “too long,” but also said that if he were still a judge he might think differently because when prosecutors came to him saying a suspect could destroy evidence if he granted them bail, it made his job easier. In trying to explain such a mind-set, he said people in the criminal justice system believe it is due to their “hard work” that Japan is such a safe country, there is no reason to change their ways.

The TBS reporter didn’t bring up civil rights, maybe because it didn’t occur to him. Hiroshi Seki, who has written extensively on Japanese courts, blames this ignorance for Japan’s “medieval” trial system.

According to a review of Seki’s 2014 book “Japan’s Courts” that appeared in the online magazine Litera in February 2015, the media has abandoned their essential mission, which is to “check those in power.” Seki says the press practices self-restraint, thus placing them at the beck-and-call of those in power. Reporters are not required to know anything about the things they cover. When it comes to criminal trials, for instance, they can’t produce a story “without lectures from the courts and the police.” Reporters covering court cases usually attend sessions by police and prosecutors who explain the development of a case. These are not news conferences. The prosecution gives its version of the case and the journalists base their reporting on that version. In most instances, they do not go out and dig deeper into the case. They simply repeat what they’ve been told, since they don’t understand enough about the legal process to draw any conclusions other than the ones already drawn for them by the authorities.

Veteran journalist Shoko Egawa, who came to the public’s attention with her in-depth coverage of the Aum Shinrikyo cult in the ’90s, has been a strong critic of this failure of the press. Last year, she appeared on “Session 22” with Atsuko Muraki, who as a welfare ministry official was wrongly indicted for forging documents in 2009 by the special investigator (tokusobu), an organ that seems to specialize in bringing down high-level bureaucrats and politicians. Egawa helped Muraki write her book about the case, and during the discussion expressed astonishment at how gullible the media was. Any reporter with an elementary understanding of ministry procedure should have been suspicious of the special prosecutor’s accusation, but they all accepted it without question.

The third case Kameishi is looking forward to this year is the second trial of Takuya Katsumata, who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a 7-year-old girl in 2005. No physical evidence was produced during the first trial. The conviction was based solely on a confession his lawyers say was coerced under duress.

When Fuji TV covered the trial, it produced a dramatization of what went on in court, and analyzed every gesture and facial expression for what they indicated about the defendant’s guilt, which was taken for granted because of the confession. It was as if Fuji TV was saying, “The police already did this work, why should we?”