A vast majority of the public thinks more autopsies are necessary to determine if a death was due to foul play, according to a Cabinet Office crime survey released Thursday.
“I was actually surprised by the high percentage,” said professor Hirotaro Iwase of Chiba University’s Forensic Medicine Department, who is in charge of conducting autopsies in the prefecture. “This shows people think there is something wrong with the situation concerning autopsies in Japan.”
In a survey on preventing crime-related deaths from being overlooked, 85.3 percent of 1,913 respondents said they feel more autopsies need to be done to detect crimes. About 96.7 percent of respondents said they want to know how a family member died.
Currently, autopsies are carried out for only about 10 percent of the “unnatural deaths” that take place nationwide, according to the National Police Agency. The United States and United Kingdom have autopsy rates of about 50 percent, experts say.
In Japan, the forensic medicine departments of various universities are in charge of autopsies when police suspect a crime. In Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka, however, medical examiners’ offices are responsible. These offices are usually under the purview of municipal governments.
Postmortem examinations are crucial to determining the true cause of death and whether foul play was involved, but forensics experts are few and their budgets are falling.
This has resulted in fewer autopsies. For instance, Aomori Prefecture no longer carries out autopsies because it doesn’t have enough experts and asks nearby prefectures, including Iwate and Akita, to perform them.
“The survey shows that we’ve got to change the system” and the government is not doing enough, Iwase said.
Meanwhile, the survey also found that 65.3 percent of respondents were “uncomfortable” with autopsies being carried out if it has been officially determined that crime was not involved, even if the cause of the death is unknown.
Iwase said this question was inappropriate.
“How are we going to know if a crime is committed or not without finding out the true cause of death?” he asked.
Considering the importance of the issue, the NPA set up a death investigation study group in January and said in its midterm report last month that it hopes to increase the autopsy rate to 20 percent in five years and 50 percent in the future.
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