Police stonewalling over death of U.S. teen in Shinjuku prolongs family’s ordeal

Kangs fighting for full disclosure from Tokyo police after autopsy was released with key evidence missing


After fighting for two long, hard years for access to key documentation relating to the death of their son, the family of Korean-American Hoon “Scott” Kang has finally managed to obtain a copy of his autopsy report.

Kang, who worked as an English teacher in South Korea, died while holidaying in Tokyo in August 2010 after sustaining severe head injuries in a building in the city’s seedy Kabuki-cho district.

The 19-year-old was found lying unconscious in a pool of his own blood around 2 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 24, in the sixth-floor stairwell of Collins Building 15, an eight-story high-rise of small hostess bars and clubs near Shinjuku City Hall.

He remained in a coma for six days before dying of his injuries, his mother by his side, at the Kokuritsu Kokusai Iryo Kenkyu Center in Shinjuku.

The Kang family has long been unhappy with the Japanese police investigation, which concluded that Scott’s death was an accident, and is calling for the case to be reopened.

The Kangs had hoped that the release of key documents such as the autopsy report would shed some light on the case and bring them nearer to obtaining closure. Instead, it has reopened old wounds and raised fresh questions about the thoroughness of the original investigation.

Although the public prosecutor released a complete copy of the Japanese report to the family, none of the autopsy photos were included. No explanation was given for the omission.

Scott’s father, Sung-won Kang, says he is disappointed and angry about the way the Japanese authorities have treated him and his family.

“Last Christmas was my third Christmas without my son,” he said. “Our lawyer worked hard to get the autopsy released, but without the photos we are left with no more answers than before about how Hoon died. [The autopsy’s] conclusion about Scott’s worst injury is foolish and without some important facts.”

Kang family spokesman Ray Wozniak says the family had planned to have the autopsy independently analyzed by a medical examiner in their home state of Georgia, but without the photos it is proving extremely difficult for a third party to make a judgment about how Scott died.

The Kangs are also calling for other pieces of important evidence relating to the case to be released, in particular a video recording of Scott from the security camera in the Collins Building 15 elevator taken just after 11 p.m. that night — two hours before the fatal incident is believed to have occurred.

Kang and Wozniak, who viewed this footage numerous times at Shinjuku Police Station in 2010, believe it shows foul play played a part in Scott’s death.

According to Wozniak, the footage shows Scott entering the elevator from the first floor followed by two men.

He says the Shinjuku police later informed them — after repeated requests — that the two were a large-framed, 44-year-old Filipino tout and entertainer for The Masquerade, a gay bar in the building’s basement, and his shorter, 22-year-old Japanese assistant.

Wozniak says that after the Japanese man gets out of the elevator on the sixth floor, the Filipino proceeds to threaten Scott, holding both his fists in front of his face and then grabbing his wrist in what Wozniak calls a “control move.” Both Scott and the Filipino exit the elevator on the eighth floor.

“Most damning of all, the suspect’s right shoulder moves forward to deliver a rabbit punch to Scott’s midsection,” Wozniak said. “Scott doubles over, and in several images his face shows him to be in clear and severe pain.”

The Filipino tout seen in the elevator footage is the last known person to have seen Scott before the incident in the stairwell, and Wozniak believes the video suggests he was involved in his death.

Yet the Japanese police strongly reject this interpretation and maintain Scott’s death was an unfortunate accident.

Scott’s father first requested a copy of his son’s autopsy report when he met with Shinjuku police in late 2010, accompanied by Wozniak, a family friend.

It wasn’t until late 2012 — over two years later, and after retaining a Japanese lawyer — that they were finally able to obtain a copy of the report, and even then it was incomplete.

“The recent release of limited autopsy information is unsatisfying to those who grieve the loss of Scott Kang,” Wozniak said. “It leaves off crime scene photos, autopsy photos, the video of Scott being assaulted in the elevator and the outdoor security video footage. The photos are needed for further forensic inquiry.”

Wozniak believes the police are reluctant to fully disclose information on the case because they failed to properly investigate Scott’s death.

“With the police moving first from one theory and then to another about the cause of Scott’s death, it is evident that they do not want outside oversight into their conclusions,” Wozniak said. “That such information as we did receive had to be wrung out of the authorities by legal action is indicative of the delaying and misleading that the Japanese authorities have continued to display.”

The Kang family has asked their Japanese attorney to file a complaint against the police and also request the release of additional evidence relating to the case, in particular the crime scene and autopsy photos.

“There are far too many unanswered questions and contradictory statements from the police about Scott’s death,” Wozniak said. “We will continue our quest for the truth because this is not something simple like a traffic accident. This is about murder.”

As well as being unhappy with the Japanese authorities’ refusal to disclose all the evidence, the Kang family also believes some of the conclusions reached by the doctor who performed the autopsy, Koichi Uemura of the Tokyo Medical and Dental University, are unsound.

“The cause of death is believed to be swelling of the brain due to fracture of the cranium and acute subdural hematoma caused by a blow to the left-rear of the head,” says the autopsy report. “The fractures to the cranium are thought to be injuries sustained by a blow from a blunt object with a broad surface.”

The Kang family strongly disputes Uemura’s conclusion, which supports the police position that his death was accidental.

“The puncture wound in Scott’s head that caused his death could not have been caused by his head striking a smooth, broad surface [as in falling to the floor] as the autopsy interpretation of Scott’s wound takes pains to claim,” Wozniak said. “It is mechanically impossible.

“It is apparent to anyone with a grasp of science that a hole knocked in Scott’s head with such force as to drive the bone fragment up into his skull resulted from a blow with a pointed instrument.

“Attaching the name of a respected forensic pathologist to such a fairy-tale claim, as the police have, does not overturn the laws of physics,” Wozniak said.

Yet without access to further evidence, such as the autopsy photos, it is difficult for the Kang family to prove these suspicions.

The family also has serious questions about the blood-alcohol tests performed on Scott when he was comatose in the hospital.

The results included in the autopsy show Scott was tested on two occasions — on Aug. 24 and 25.

Of particular interest is the test result for Aug. 24 — the day of the incident — which puts Scott’s blood alcohol concentration at 0.273 percent.

This is exceedingly high, especially for someone not known as a heavy drinker.

Levels of 0.3 to 0.4 percent normally result in stupor and unconsciousness; above that figure, death by alcohol poisoning is not uncommon.

On the face of it, such a high alcohol reading would seem to support the police theory that Scott died from accidentally falling down the steps while extremely intoxicated.

This was also the conclusion reached by Uemura in his autopsy report.

To quote: “It is thought that, when the injuries were sustained, the deceased was not moderately but extremely inebriated. Given the head injury was sustained while inebriated, it is thought that, at the time of injury, the deceased was unable to break his fall and it is highly likely that this led to the life-threatening injury.”

Yet one piece of critical information is absent from the report: the time the alcohol tests were carried out. Only the dates on which the tests were taken are recorded, making it impossible to calculate how intoxicated Scott was when the incident occurred.

For Wozniak, the failure to record even the most basic information that might help determine how Scott died is yet another damning indictment of the authorities’ handling of the investigation.

Wozniak also believes the alcohol level released by the police seems much too high. He says it doesn’t match the impression he got of Scott’s condition from watching the elevator security video, recorded just hours before the fatal incident.

“The doctor uses the blood alcohol value he has to say that Scott was quite intoxicated, but if the sample was taken at 4 a.m. as opposed to 3 a.m. when he first arrived at the hospital, then the value [alcohol level] for the time he was in the elevator would have to have been so high [that] he would be approaching death by alcohol poisoning,” he explained. “Again, even with the values they claim, this is impossible, as Scott appeared normally animated on the elevator video.”

Dr. Hirotaro Iwase, a forensic pathologist at the Chiba University School of Medicine, carried out an independent analysis of the autopsy report after it was released to the family.

“[Kang] died from hitting his head — death by blunt force trauma,” Iwase said. “That is all I can say about how he died. With regards to the manner of death — suicide, accident or homicide — I don’t know. I don’t know if his death was related to a crime or not.”

Iwase added that, in his opinion, there is nothing extraordinary about Scott’s injuries that point to a clear cause of death.

“There is nothing about the nature of the wound that reveals anything. There are no peculiarities or unusual features related to it. For example, in the case of someone being hit with a hammer, you could see that afterwards, but in the case of a fall, there are no peculiar features to look at.”

Iwase acknowledges, though, that the lack of access to the photos places significant limitations on his ability go beyond the findings of the original autopsy.

According to Iwase, withholding autopsy information from the next of kin of the deceased is common practice in Japan, although this goes against international norms — especially in cases such as Kang’s, where the official cause of death has been determined to be an accident.

“In cases where there is no crime, they should release the photos as well,” he said. “The police refusing to release the autopsy in the case of criminal investigations is normal in most countries. But when a crime hasn’t occurred, the autopsy is usually released fairly promptly. In Japan, this doesn’t happen.”

In fact, the two-year period that the Kang family has had to wait before getting access to their son’s autopsy report is comparatively short by Japanese standards. In many cases, the authorities refuse outright to release the autopsy at any point.

“It is common in Japan for the authorities to wait years and years before releasing an autopsy, if they do at all,” Iwase said. “This is an area where there is much room for improvement.”

U.S. citizen and Japan resident Charles Lacey had to wait almost three years before police in Fukuoka released a copy of his brother’s autopsy report.

“I got [the report] after constant pressure,” Lacey explained. “I was calling on a regular basis — I was just a thorn in their side.

“Finally, after three painfully long years of requesting a document that in many countries is available immediately upon its completion, the authorities in Fukuoka relented and allowed me to make a digital copy.”

Lacey’s younger brother, Matthew, died in Fukuoka in 2004 in arguably suspicious circumstances, but the police quickly concluded his death was accidental.

There are a number of striking similarities between the ways the police treated the deaths of Kang and Matthew Lacey.

In both cases they soon determined that blunt force trauma to the head from an accidental fall caused the death.

Also, in both cases the police’s theory behind these alleged falls shifted, seemingly arbitrarily, over time and critical errors of omission were made during the investigative process.

In the case of Kang, the police were unable to provide the family with a consistent narrative that made sense for the hours leading up to Scott’s death, particularly in relation to his interactions with the Filipino tout who worked in the building and their reason for being in the stairwell area.

According to Kang and Wozniak, the Shinjuku police first told them Scott had wanted to go out on to the roof of the building, probably with the intention of jumping to his death, and the Filipino man had followed Scott out onto the eighth floor stairwell to stop him and to persuade him to come back into the building.

Scott was unable to go onto the roof because the access door was locked, the police said, and after failing to persuade him to come back inside, the Filipino eventually gave up and left Scott to his own devices.

At a later stage, a Shinjuku police officer allegedly told Scott’s father that they believed the Filipino man’s movements in the elevator weren’t violent or threatening, but in fact indicators of a homosexual encounter and that, for example, his son’s pained facial expression in the video, which his family believes was caused by a blow, was in fact Scott attempting to kiss the man.

Wozniak and the Kang family strongly dispute any suggestions that Scott may have been homosexual or that he was suicidal.

In the case of Matthew Lacey, the family was also very unhappy with police theory of death, which changed over time and was inconsistent.

Lacey was found lying dead on his futon in his Fukuoka apartment, in an adjacent room to where his original injury supposedly occurred.

The police claimed he fell in the kitchen, hit his head on the carpeted floor, then got up and walked to his futon, lay down and died.

Yet independent medical experts who later analyzed the autopsy, including an eminent American forensic pathologist, rejected this explanation.

“All three medical examiners told me that somebody who suffered such a severe head trauma is not going to get up from such an injury,” explained Lacey. “It was just one implausibility after the other.”

Another issue was a large reddish-black stain on the futon that the police assumed was liquid from Lacey’s decaying corpse, but which independent experts concluded was most likely blood.

“If it was blood, that would indicate that my brother was struck while lying on his futon,” Lacey said. “Instead of speculating that the stain was not blood, a simple test should have been done to confirm one way or another.”

The police explanation for Matthew’s death also changed from an initial determination of death due to sickness (diarrhea and dehydration) to accidental death due to a fall, further shaking the family’s confidence in the investigation.

Lacey added that in his home country, it is standard procedure for a copy of the autopsy report to be given to the deceased’s next of kin upon request, unlike in Japan.

“Our family and Matthew’s friends were perplexed and angry that vital information regarding the cause and manner of his death was being withheld,” he said. “We had a hard time accepting the fact that access to such important data in Japan falls below international standards.”

Lacey believes that the long delay in releasing his brother’s autopsy results meant that these critical findings by independent medical examiners, which largely disproved the police theory about his brother’s death, had little impact.

“People lose interest in cases. What would be the point in doing a follow-up investigation after two or three years?”

Also, the many long years of dealing with what the Laceys considered to be incompetent, disinterested police meant that the family could no longer see the point in reopening the case.

“If such fundamental mistakes were made in the so-called first investigation, why would I press such an inept police force to re-open the case?” he asked.

“I do want people to know, if a loved one or family member here dies abruptly or under unexplained circumstances, hire a lawyer and demand an autopsy, because the police are going to place a lot of limits on the amount of information they are going to release,” he advised. “Simply put, Japan has yet to see the enormous merit of having an autopsy system that values transparency.”

Iwase believes the reluctance of the police to provide key information, such as autopsy reports, to next of kin is symptomatic of a wider problem in Japanese police culture, which he calls “overly secretive.”

“The police don’t want the public to know the manner in which they carry out investigations. This is the case with all aspects of the investigation process.

“For example, they are often reluctant to record on video parts of their investigation, such as interviewing suspects or processing the crime scene.

“Using video in these kinds of situations is standard procedure in most other countries.”

Professor Koichi Uemura, who performed the autopsy on Scott Kang, declined the opportunity to comment for this story, saying Japanese legal regulations for judicial autopsies prohibit forensic pathologists from discussing individual cases, as the autopsy results form part of a criminal investigation.

Officers at Shinjuku Police Station also declined to comment, saying they are not permitted to speak directly to journalists who are not members of the police press club.

Many thanks to James Benson for his translation assistance. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Johan Lackbeard

    Not a conspiracy theorist, but I can’t help but feel like the Japanese police have orders from above to keep the seedier sides of Japan out of foreign news…

  • dadadidi

    The only way these two families can obtain complete answers to these
    two homicides is to seek relief from international tribunals such as the
    International Human Rights Commision and the International Court of
    Justice. Japanese government officials will not be a bump on a log. In
    the 2011 great tsunami, they contributed to thousands of deaths of
    their own people by taking too long to respond.

    The additional problem is cultural. For example, the Japanese
    government made dolphin meat a mandatory part of the national school
    lunch program. It is compulsory that all students eat everything on
    their plates even when officials knew that dolphin meat contains four
    hundred times the international standards of maximum allowable mercury
    in food. It was a crime against humanity because they knew of the past
    horrible effects of mercury on the people of Minamata, Japan.

    Good luck my friends because it will be an uphill battle.

    • Jeffrey

      Japan, which otherwise likes to see itself as a respectable, progressive nation, needs to be shamed into behaving in such a manner as it was recently with international child custody laws. After all, they want to host the world for the 2020 Summer Games. However, if the national police force is going to continue becoming increasingly xenophobic, I’d say that counts against its bid.

  • Anita Railing

    Sorry to say but pathologists are expensive, and the system here is cheap. The police just don’t want to take things up to the next level of professionalism. 1. because they don’t know what it is 2. because they are ordered to make do.

  • neuxreux

    This is a very disheartening and alarming case. Im just wondering, can’t the embassy or government of the victims/deceased support the family in the pursuit of the investigation?

    There aren’t much to praise about the attitude and performance of the police force in Japan, the reports about their incompetence is a regular on the news; you cant change their behavior – but the laws, the laws they follow can be changed to change them.

    • Jeffrey

      Consider the case of the American geezer from a couple years back – mid-70s, there visiting his son. Goes into a koban to ask for directions. They ask him if he’s carrying a knife. Turns out he is and it just happens to be a smidge longer than the new law allows, which he would have had no knowledge of. Instead of explaining the law and confiscating the knife, they arrest him and hold him for 10 days. Yosoko!


  • Roger March

    Terrific article Simon. I wonder how many cases there are of japanese nationals being denied access to autopsy reports of their deceased loved ones.

  • Tanaka

    Maybe is paranoia, but each passing day I become more and more afraid of the Japanese police, its dubious methods and its inefficiency. The fact is: I’m not worried about being victimized by a crime, I just dread any contact with the police itself.

    They were useless bureaucrats when I most needed them. Yet, they’re seem to be more occupied hiding behind bushes and giving speed tickets.

  • i have no faith with the Japanese police, I’ve had experiences with them, they are unfair. I had a boyfriend who is a foreigner, he was punched in the train by a local for unknown reason.
    After several trials in court, that man walks without even paying the medical bills. Reason they said was, he was just a free-timer.
    Well, if that’s the case they could have just brought him to jail for a month. He paid nothing for his doings.
    Now that he got away with it, he can now punch some random foreigners in the train again. what a psycho.

    • Daniel Dumas

      I had a weird experience on a train with a guy who pretended to bump me three times. He was my height and had a strong build, so it was with great trepidation I hauled off and punched him in the face – after the third bump. Mr tough guy suddenly wanted the police called.

      • Osaka48

        You were the foreigner…he knew that he had the advantage. Unfortunate situation.

      • Masa Chekov

        Why would you punch a stranger in the face? How weird. Did you ever think of just moving, or was assault your first thought?

      • 思德

        It was probably his third after the third time of being physically harassed by a stranger.

      • Masa Chekov

        1) Walk away
        2) Ask him to stop
        3) Ask him to stop and apologize
        4) Get the help of an official/police officer

        All acceptable, legal responses. Assault is not. The man who was punched was right to call a police officer.

  • Buntan

    I think it sounds like either pressure from organized crime or the fight against organized crime (turning a blind eye to certain incidents in order to focus on higher priorities) lies behind their unwillingness to investigate. Anyway, in a district like Kabuki-cho it would seem natural.

    • Osaka48

      It’s pure speculation, but you could be correct. Even in “non-seedy” parts of Japan, my Japanese hosts “pre check” clubs before we enter to make sure they are not Yakuza controlled (although I’m not sure how this is determined).
      Sounds like this (unfortunate) kid ventured into a “tough” place on his own looking for…what? Never a good idea…and I hesitate to add, especially if you’re Korean-American.

      • Brandon Brown

        How to find Yakuza-controlled club?

        1. look for guy with tattoos at the door

        2. watch that same guy tell you “no foreigners”


  • Bosques Lisa

    What the hell, Japanese police? How disappointing. Quit yanking everyone’s chain, take responsibility and DO YOUR JOB!! Shame.

  • Guest

    I’m wondering why the author of this article has not interviewed a representative of the police on this matter? It seems that for something this controversial that it would be prudent to ask the police to explain their position on the matter.

    It’s sad that this family cannot find the answers they need.

    • Unacceptable

      “Officers at Shinjuku Police Station also declined to comment, saying they are not permitted to speak directly to journalists who are not members of the police press club.”

      Let me explain how that works. Journalists who are members of that club learn to soften their questions in exchange for access and wouldn’t for example ask about gross incompetence. This is disgraceful. The family is lucky he’s an American citizen. Send in the US diplomatic corps. For all Americas faults, it takes care of its own and they will have no hesitation pointing the finger at gross incompetence and worse a cover up to benefit organized crime. Suggest someone raise this story with the NEW YORK TIMES. If we see Obama on TV pointing his finger at some crooked cops, the Japanese government will swing into action just as they did with the corrupt bullying case.

      • Jeffrey

        The U.S. diplomatic corps almost never gets involved in cases like this or in any circumstances where the police appear to be holding a U.S. citizen without just cause.

  • Ted Ekering

    Masa Chekov wrote “I’m wondering why the author of this article has not interviewed a representative of the police on this matter,” despite the author of this article having written “Shinjuku Police also declined to comment, saying they are not permitted to speak directly to journalists who are not members of the police press club.”

    I’d advise reading the whole article before posting comments. -_-

    • Masa Chekov

      Thanks for the heads up, Ted – I did read the whole article looking for something to that effect, but I missed it in the last sentence.

      I’ll remove my inaccurate comment!

    • Jeffrey

      While this is true, it’s still stupid. Police forces the world over seemed to be compromised in one fashion or another, but one reads too many stories like these where the Japanese police seem to simply be lazy and/or have no contemporary investigative skills. That and the blatant racism in cases like this – “Foreigner (one with a Korean name at that) whacked in Kabuki-cho? Who cares?”

  • Bruce Chatwin

    “According to the National Police Agency, only about 10 percent of “unnatural deaths,” whose cause is not immediately clear, are subject to post-mortems (in Japan), partly because there are few autopsy experts and minimal financial support.
    Sweden on the other hand conducts post-mortems on 89.1 percent of suspicious deaths, while the rate for England and Wales is 45.8 percent, and 19.3 percent in Germany in 2009.”


    Clearly this is an area that could do with some improvement.

  • Ron NJ

    The wacked out coverup excuses the police here make are amazing. Foul play? Nah he was a closet homosexual who tried to make out with a Filipino tout two decades older than himself, then managed to fall down two opposing flights of stairs, cracking his skull open. Alternatively, foul play? Nah, guy totally died from dehydration via diarrhea with a tap ten feet away, let’s also not bother testing the odd-colored liquid surrounding the corpse.

  • Adam

    I as well had a bad experience with police over a traffic incident. It took them 2 weeks to ask me for my statement regarding the incident. It was like they wanted me to give in immediately lol. Then finally dragged me into the police station for nearly a week straight for interrogation. I was so disturbed I literally recorded the interviews and played them back to my wife. She was so shocked of there sneaky ways we later visited the crown in downtown Yokohama to complain. Shortly after that was done the police backed off and we were into civil court.

    Kanagawa is terrible when it comes to dealing with foreigners. Been like so for a long time now and will never change up. Some say because of U.S forces from way back, what ever, they are just racist against us!

    Anyhow I hope this situation gets rectified & the family some decent closure. God knows the Japan end of this will drag their feet for as long as it takes.

  • Osaka48

    I give credit to the Japan Times for keeping this story alive. For the Japanese police to be so stubborn and willing to put up road blocks to the release of “routine” evidence only casts suspicion on their motives. It’s abviously causing “difficulty” for them.

  • 思德

    I guess you could say their incompetence is “regrettable”.

  • JS

    The American government needs to toughen up when it comes to Japan. It seems that the US government always gives Japan a free pass due to its security alliance with Japan, and since Japan is home to several large American bases and hosts thousands of American soldiers.

    However, the American government should not ignore the situation when it’s citizens’ civil, legal and human rights are trampled upon by Japanese institutions while they are either visiting or living in Japan. It is the responsibility of the US government to ensure that American citizens’ legal, civil and human rights are protected while they are abroad, especially in countries like Japan which are considered to be a friend and ally of the US.

    Sadly, I have seen over many years in Japan, too many cases where the Japanese police, businesses, courts and the legal system have discriminated against US citizens in Japan, have violated their legal, civil and human rights, and have not afforded just protections to American citizens which they are entitled to under Japanese laws.

    On behalf of all American citizens living in Japan, I urge the incoming ambassador Kennedy to take a tough stance in rectifying this situation, and to make this a top priority.

    • Brandon Brown

      TBH, The U.S. has more important things on it’s plate ATM. Definitely not gonna happen anytime soon. Stories about Americans abroad barely last a day in U.S. media. Have you seen the news lately in the U.S.? All garbage. Most Americans can’t even find Japan on a map.

  • Simon Foston

    “Officers at Shinjuku Police Station also declined to comment, saying they are not permitted to speak directly to journalists who are not members of the police press club.”

    That is to say, not police mouth-pieces who just report whatever suits the police.

  • Christopher Johnson

    Very disturbing story on many levels. Why aren’t NHK or other Japanese media in the exclusive press club asking police for more on this? Secondly, if there’s indeed a video of a man allegedly assaulting a man hours before his death, did police ever question or detain this man? If this man did murder this teenager, where is he now, and what other crimes have been committed?

  • Matthew Beers Okubo-Reed

    We have a similar case here in NYC where a Japanese student was killed by a police car and the NYPD have put all the blame on the victim. Just take a look at some of these articles. http://gothamist.com/tags/ryooyamada

  • C321

    What a joke! How can the police not be investigating a murder with video footage like that?

  • Sasori

    Oh puleeze! The reason for the secrecy and lack of modern documentation is so they can cover their own corruption and ineptness. Plus, this case is in Shinjuku, so the cops are really there to protect the Yakuza more than anyone else.
    This, and the fact that Japan never asks any outsiders for help, even if it means immanent mass death (ie fukushima) means that the mentality that they can do no wrong is firmly set in stone…er, their heads. Actually, they’re alot like the U.S. congress.