The official account of how a gangster died during questioning at a Yokohama police station in 1997 is being challenged in court by the victim’s daughter, who says Kanagawa Prefectural Police are hiding crucial evidence that could disprove the alleged suicide.

On Nov. 8, 1997, a handgun was fired at around 2:50 p.m. inside an interrogation room of the Tobe Police Station in Yokohama’s Nishi Ward, taking the life of Yoshio Yanagi, 55, who was arrested 18 days earlier on suspicion of illegal possession of the weapon.

Kanagawa police reported to the National Police Agency that Yanagi, a former gangster who ran a financial firm in Yokohama, had taken the gun and a bullet — both placed on the table as evidence in the case against him — and shot himself in the chest. Yanagi was pronounced dead 30 minutes later at a nearby hospital.

Yanagi was a widely known figure in Yokohama’s underworld circles. He had spent a total of 16 years in prison in Japan and in Hong Kong for illegal use and smuggling of firearms.

Later, six Tobe station officers, including Sgt. Yukio Hasegawa, 51, who was sitting across the table from Yanagi at the time of his death, were issued only minor warnings by the prefectural force for failing to keep an eye on the suspect’s movements.

What the family suspects

Yanagi’s family doubts the police account of his death. According to Yanagi’s 24-year-old daughter, details of the story have changed several times since she was first called to Tobe station after the incident. In the initial story, her father was handed the gun by an officer to confirm whether it was his own. Later, however, police claimed he picked the gun up from the table himself.

In February 1999, the daughter, who asked not to be named, filed a damages suit against the Kanagawa Prefectural Government with the Yokohama District Court, hoping a trial would unveil what actually happened.

“I don’t believe my father killed himself. I had an appointment to visit him at the station two days after his death, and police said he seemed so happy to hear that,” she said.

Her lawyers claim physical and circumstantial evidence they have obtained indicate Yanagi was shot from a distance, casting doubt on the allegation of suicide.

The lawyers also accuse prefectural police of hiding information crucial to the case, making it very difficult for them to present their arguments in court.

“All the necessary information is monopolized by one side, but we decided to take the case to court because even the minimum evidence shows how unlikely it is that Yanagi shot himself,” said Tsuneo Murata, one of the lawyers.

In addition to the civil suit, Yanagi’s daughter and her lawyers filed a criminal complaint with the Yokohama District Court in March, claiming Yanagi was either accidentally or intentionally shot by a police officer as he was being interrogated.

Prosecutors have not yet decided whether to take up the case.

During the civil trial, lawyers for the prefectural government submitted a police report on the incident and said they accept the account 100 percent.

What the police say

According to the report, Yanagi stole a bullet from the table while being interrogated by Sgt. Hasegawa and another officer. It was among 38 bullets of various caliber in a plastic bag lying on the table along with the Brazilian-made pistol that police alleged belonged to Yanagi.

The report suggests Yanagi took the bullet while one officer was busy writing up the interrogation report on the opposite side of the 1.2-meter-wide table, and the other was retrieving an envelope that had fallen to the floor.

One of the officers later left the room to answer a phone call, the report says, and that’s when Yanagi picked up the gun from the table, loaded the bullet and shot himself point-blank in the chest. Hasegawa was still writing up his report at the time and he didn’t notice Yanagi’s movement in time to do anything more than shout an appeal to stop, according to police.

Lawyer Murata said it is unlikely such a serious criminal as Yanagi would be allowed within reach of a gun or any other weapon during questioning.

Even if the gun and bullets were left on the table, it is impossible that the officers, who were sitting or standing so near to Yanagi, could have failed to notice his movements and the sound they must have made, he added.

What the evidence shows

Murata also said the angle of bullet entry and shape of the gunshot wound made to Yanagi’s body suggests the gun was fired from a distance of at least 30 cm and not from point-blank range as police claim. A point-blank shot would have left powder burns around the entry wound, but no such marks were found on Yanagi’s body during the police autopsy, he added.

In the report, police also claim Yanagi held the gun by the barrel and cylinder with his left hand and fired it with his right thumb. This would have left serious burns on his left hand, Murata claimed, but no evidence of this turned up in the autopsy.

During the court hearing, lawyers for the prefecture were dismissive of the plaintiff’s arguments.

On Sept. 22, Sgt. Hasegawa took the witness stand for the first time before the Yokohama court. His testimony corroborated the police report.

Outside the courtroom, both the prefectural government and police force refuse to comment, saying the case is still ongoing.

Meanwhile, Kanagawa police have rejected the plaintiff’s request to unveil what may be crucial evidence, such as the result of a fingerprint test on the gun and cartridge and a detailed autopsy report.

They are also refusing to release photographs of the interrogation room taken right after the incident and the day’s interrogation report by Hasegawa, arguing that they are either unavailable or insignificant.

But last week, Kanagawa police announced to the press that they had detected no gunpowder on the hands of either Yanagi or Sgt. Hasegawa after the incident.

For the three years prior to the sudden announcement, the force had claimed no gunpowder tests had been conducted, according to Yanagi’s lawyers.

“The test results not only suggest it is least likely that Yanagi shot himself, but also illustrates the police attitude of secrecy in this case,” said Hiroshi Inoue, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers.

A police spokesman said he does not know why such important evidence had been kept under wraps for three years. An explanation is not available, he claimed, as many senior officials who were in charge of Yanagi’s case have since moved on to other police stations.

Darker implications

Tetsuya Tsuda, a freelance journalist specializing in police corruption, says the nature of secrecy is deep-rooted among all police, especially those with the Kanagawa force, as illustrated by recent scandals.

He also cited widespread connections between police and the underworld, which he alleged is particularly serious in Kanagawa.

Lawyer Murata believes such ties may be behind Yanagi’s death.

Shortly before his arrest, Yanagi allegedly forced the former head of a local underworld group to pay back a 10 million yen debt to an acquaintance by confining and threatening him at gunpoint.

Yanagi carried 7.5 million yen of the money into the police station when he was arrested, and the ex-gang boss, who allegedly enjoyed close ties with some Tobe officers, visited the station several times to get the money back, Murata said.

Having died of cancer last month, the ex-gang boss is no longer around to testify in the case. But Murata has a recorded interview in which the man, who has not been named, says he was in the station at the time Yanagi was killed. He said police allowed him to enter but would not disclose what he was doing there, Murata claimed.

Murata believes the man had something to do with Yanagi’s death.

“If so, police have every reason to hide the truth, which would bring to light their underworld connections,” he said.

“It is impossible to guess what actually happened that day, unless the police officers confess. But the physical and circumstantial evidence brings every doubt to their explanation.”

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