Despite years of campaigning against an alleged state injustice, Akiko Hoshino shows no signs of cynicism. The sprightly, upbeat 59-year-old welcomes newcomers to her struggle with a patient, gentle manner. Patience is certainly needed, since her campaign has stretched out over several decades. Her husband, Fumiaki, 67, has spent nearly 40 years behind bars for a crime he maintains he did not commit and due to a conviction he and his supporters believe was politically motivated.

Fumiaki Hoshino was arrested in 1975 in connection with the death of a riot police officer in the so-called Shibuya Riot Incident of Nov. 14, 1971. That day, the radical New Left group Chukaku-ha (Middle Core Faction) organized a large rally in Shibuya to protest the terms of the return of Okinawa to Japan and the island’s use by U.S. forces as a staging post for the Vietnam War.

A veteran of activism at his university in Gunma and the Narita International Airport protests in Sanrizuka, Hoshino was one of the leaders of a group of around 200 students and young workers that descended on Shibuya from the Yoyogi area. Riot police tried to prevent them passing and a scuffle ensued. In the melee, police officer Tsuneo Nakamura was beaten and set on fire. He died the next day.

In 1972, six activists involved in the Shibuya incident were arrested, three of them minors. A seventh, Masaaki Osaka, who police believe threw the Molotov cocktail that set Nakamura alight, has never been caught. Five of the activists gave testimony to police regarding the death, and these confessions were the sole evidence used to convict Hoshino for murder. Though they all later denied their testimonies in court, in the Japanese judicial system statements and confessions made to the police take precedence.

“Being the leader of the demo, they just wanted to make Fumiaki take responsibility, by any means necessary. That was their aim,” says his wife, sitting in the modest Tokyo office of the Hoshino Defense Committee.

She first laid eyes on her future husband in a courtroom in 1984, five years into the appeals process after his conviction.

“He had been in prison for nine years. I was invited by a friend and went to see the trial.” She was then 30 and he was 38. “My first impression of him was that he seemed very isolated.”

She was moved and inspired by the philosophy Hoshino espoused from the dock during his appeal.

“He was questioned by the court about why he became an anti-war campaigner. ‘Unless all of humanity can live humanely,’ he said, ‘I too cannot live like a human. And so in my life I aimed to construct a society where every human can live humanely.’ This was incredible striking.”

She would travel the 400 km down from Akita once a month to follow the legal proceedings in Tokyo, and requested to start corresponding with Hoshino. At that time, he was not permitted to receive letters from her, so his lawyer would hold up her messages for him to read.

When the court case ended, she found the only way to see him was to apply for a meeting in prison ostensibly as his fiancée.

“We first met in Tokyo. I was full of anticipation but it was only 15 minutes. He was extremely caring and gentle. The meeting was over so quickly but we were absorbed in talking to each other.”

They began to meet once a month and exchange letters.

“Actually, the wedding proposal came from me.” She laughs at the memory. “But Fumiaki said he wanted my parents’ agreement.”

Akiko then began the long process of attempting to persuade her parents to let her marry a man who would in theory die in prison. They finally wed in 1986. However, in 1987, with his final appeal rejected by the Supreme Court, Hoshino was transferred to Tokushima Prison in Shikoku, 500 km south of Tokyo.

“I moved from Akita to Tokyo soon after getting married. I felt I wanted to be close to Fumiaki to support him. From here I’ve been going to the prison in Tokyo and in Tokushima to visit him. But it’s far away. I requested they move him to Tokyo as that’s where I am, but that was ignored.”

The couple have never touched. Every conversation they have had has been conducted through a Plexiglas panel with a prison guard present.

“There’s no privacy,” Akiko admits. “With his prison status right now, Fumiaki can write five letters a month and receive visitors three times, so I go to Tokushima three times to see him.”

After the Supreme Court rejected Hoshino’s request for a retrial in 2000, Akiko asked Tokushima Prison for permission to have Hoshino’s child via in vitro fertilization. The Justice Ministry refused the request.

On top of the obvious expense and hardship for Akiko of these regular journeys, her husband is also suffering.

“The summer is really hot in the prison. Tokushima was over 40 degrees this summer,” she says. “There’s no fan or air conditioning in his room. He has a hand fan. And of course, in winter he also doesn’t have heating, so he gets chilblains.”

Hoshino claims he was also once put in a punishment cell for 20 days, followed by four months in solitary, for washing his foot without permission after stepping on a cockroach. His case came to the notice of Amnesty International, which started an investigation into Japanese prisons.

In light of the cases of Toshikazu Sugaya and Govinda Prasad Mainali, both of whom served long sentences before finally being exonerated, the Japanese judiciary and its 99-percent conviction rate have been receiving a lot of negative publicity of late. Commentators have criticized the Japanese courts’ reliance on confessions, frequently obtained, it is claimed, through police coercion. Japan’s human-rights envoy to the United Nations, Hideaki Ueda, resigned recently after yelling “Shut up!” when delegates at a panel debate on torture in Geneva laughed as he defended his country’s record.

“Prosecutors and police need to be subject to much greater accountability. They have way too much discretionary power that is open to abuse,” says Jeff Kingston, a professor of history at Temple University Japan in Tokyo and Japan Times columnist. “Over the past several years we have read extensively about these abuses and they do not seem to be fading. The reliance on confessions and the circumstances in which these confessions are obtained impugn the integrity of Japan’s judicial system.” He highlights videotaping of interrogations as one key improvement to be made.

Kingston thinks the lay judge system, introduced in 2009, is a positive sign and has been fairly successful so far.

“The judicial system has had to adapt to public participation and that has been very helpful in socializing the law. Of course, the judicial professionals are still calling the shots, but they have had to make concessions to public sensibilities and common sense. However, the system still needs further reform.”

Hoshino began to paint in prison and, after winning some awards, was gradually allowed more time to indulge his talents. He is now permitted to paint in his cell whenever he wants. Working at a rate of around one watercolor a month, he passes his wife the finished paintings, which he signs “FumiAkiko,” combining his name with his wife’s. His supporters then produce a calendar with the pictures, which are surprisingly vibrant given his predicament.

“He’s often asked how he can paint such bright pictures when he’s in prison. He says one of the reasons is to soothe me,” says his wife. “He really values living. If you look at his paintings you can see this.”

The lengthy and convoluted legal history of the Hoshino case is distinguished by its apparent vindictiveness. The prosecution initially sought the death penalty but this was met with a 120,000-strong petition. In an unusual move, the 20-year sentence he was handed in 1979 was revised up to an indefinite sentence at his first appeal in 1983.

“For a confessing, compliant defendant, the chances of a short sentence or even a suspended sentence are high, even when the charges are serious,” says professor Patricia G. Steinhoff, an expert on the Japanese New Left at the University of Hawaii. “For a defendant with identical charges who chooses to mount a political defense, the chances of acquittal or even a less-than-maximum sentence are virtually nonexistent.”

Regardless, Hoshino and his supporters have never stopped fighting. The main point of contention is the color of the jacket that one of the arrested minors, referred to in court as Kr, claimed Hoshino was wearing when he attacked the officer. Kr’s testimony records the color as brown when in fact Hoshino’s jacket was light blue. The contradiction was eventually acknowledged by the courts, even though the prosecution’s case effectively hinges on Kr’s statement to police.

“The high court recognized that Kr made a mistake with the color of the clothes during our first application for a retrial,” Akiko Hoshino says. “But then they should recognize that it’s not a reliable piece of evidence.”

Hoshino’s legal team are in the midst of a second application for a retrial and are requesting that all evidence from the case be made public. (In Japan, the prosecution can block the disclosure of evidence in a case.) There are numerous pieces of evidence that were not submitted originally. These include a picture of Hoshino later in the day carrying a pipe still wrapped in paper, suggesting that it hadn’t been used in an attack, along with photographs of the demo where there are at least two other men in brown jackets.

Recently, the prison authorities have started blacking out the entirety of the letters that the couple send each other in spite of their innocent content, Akiko says.

“It’s like during the war! My letters have been blacked out five times now and if they do this then we can’t exchange letters as husband and wife. . . . They’re doing it on purpose.”

The Hoshino Defense Committee now has supporters all over Japan, organized around a network of 24 offices. It has also just published a book, “Love and Revolution,” in an attempt to publicize the case. Some 400 supporters rallied for a march around Hoshino’s prison in September, and another large demo is scheduled for Dec. 1 around Tokyo High Court.

In the face of such legal adversities, his wife and supporters show no signs of flagging.

Hoshino himself is, his wife says, just as optimistic. “He is certain that one day he will be released.”

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