The Haras were a quiet, rather ordinary Japanese couple — until they resolved to burn down their house and drive themselves and their 20-year-old daughter off a cliff.

True Crime Japan, by Paul Murphy
256 pages
Tuttle, Nonfiction.

With their beloved home repossessed, they couldn’t endure the shame of the neighbors finding out why they moved. The last resort seemed to be arson and suicide, and as caring parents, they believed, they shouldn’t leave their daughter behind.

But their clumsy attempt at arson — involving kerosene heaters, towels and dried tofu — caused no major harm to the house, and the family suicide never happened. Driving around a mountainous countryside, the Haras couldn’t decide on a suitable cliff. Eventually they were picked up by the police.

This bizarre vignette is how journalist Paul Murphy opens his new book: “True Crime Japan — Thieves, Rascals, Killers and Dope Heads: True Stories from a Japanese Courtroom.” As a fly on the wall at the Matsumoto Summary Court and the Matsumoto District Court in Nagano Prefecture, Murphy followed 119 cases through to sentencing, spending about 500 hours in the courtrooms and reporting the hearings verbatim.

It is morbidly thrilling to witness bad choices and the slide into illegality. But Murphy never exploits his subjects; instead, his deep research offers insights — at times instructive, at others sobering — into Japanese culture and how societal changes play out at the grassroots level.

Murphy explains pensioner crime, specifically the phenomenon of “silver shoplifting,” as a result of economic stagnation, which has anxious retirees make a habit of stealing food, despite having ample savings (some pensioners say it’s “a waste of money” to pay for the goods).

Likewise, the trial of a pimp shows how new laws have checked the yakuza by banning any commercial dealings with the mob. The defendant, who left the yakuza when it got harder for him to rent apartments or buy a cell phone, had started his own call-girl service.

“The courtroom provided windows into a society I’d always found somewhat opaque,” says Murphy, who had been living in Japan for eight years when he started the book. “The crime rate for Nagano Prefecture is close to Japan’s average, so the cases were pretty representative.”

Aside from grim entries on family killings, Murphy’s depictions of petty cases can be colorful. A mama’s boy holds up his colleagues to finance his wedding; a marijuana campaigner throws a pot party for a 100 guests, serving up homegrown supplies from his garden; and an elderly man is caught shoplifting weed killer at a convenience store — after paying his cab fare to the scene of the crime.

“There were times when I was dumbfounded by what I saw: some of it comical, some farcical and some amazing,” says Murphy, whose prose style is journalistic, but aware of humorous nuance. “I also was shocked to see how intimately Japanese people talked about their lives in court,” he adds. “Each hearing is scheduled for only an hour, so there is no time for Japanese ambiguity.”

The honesty, however, is also strategic. Japanese courts convict 99 percent of the accused, as prosecutors won’t bring a case unless guilt seems certain. With hardly a chance for acquittal, the defense’s main hope is to reduce the sentence through confession and a guilty plea. The focus is on remorse and reform — and having the accused cooperate.

Unlike in the West, there is little denial in Japanese hearings, no competing versions of events. Even yakuza members eventually follow protocol, such as the freelance pimp who bows to the judge and proclaims: “I am looking for a long sentence so I can fix myself.”

Defendants will often pay compensation to victims and write them a letter of reflection, expressing regret for their deeds and promising rectitude in the future. Conversely, not saying sorry can be costly.

“Insufficient remorse can add to a prison sentence by around 15 percent,” says Murphy. “So in the trials I saw, the defendants’ remorse was extreme. And there was no attempt to make the accused person look good. Mothers spoke disdainfully about their sons. The defense lawyers’ tone with their clients was critical, almost belligerent. In front of the judge, they’d say things like, ‘I’m at a loss for words when I look at all you did.’ “

To some, the Japanese justice system may seem farcical — a Kafkaesque set of kangaroo courts. But Murphy concludes that, despite its imperfections, the system works well overall. There have been high-profile incidents of wrongful convictions — often involving coerced confessions during long-term detentions without charge — but, as a rule, the prosecution’s preparations are meticulous.

The book succeeds as an erudite guide to Japanese courts. But, beyond that, Murphy’s calm and compassionate voice, while always objective, appreciates cultural differences. Instead of assessing, he aims for understanding — even when it comes to characters as puzzling as the Haras, who loved their daughter so much they tried to kill her.

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