Lawmakers in the Diet approved reform to the country’s criminal justice system last month, mandating the recording of police interrogations in certain circumstances, revamping the existing wiretap law and introducing a plea bargain system for the first time.
While it’s hard to imagine the reform will prevent the miscarriages of justice that spurred the legislation in the first place, it could play a role in helping to dismantle organized crime.
The National Police Agency’s Academic Journal noted as far back as 2008 that Japan lacked the enforcement tools needed to deal with organized crime: wiretaps, legal undercover work and, of course, plea bargains.
In essence, a plea bargain allows suspects to plead guilty to a lesser criminal offense in exchange for a concession from prosecutors, such as dismissal of more serious charges.
The revised legislation now allows prosecutors to use this tool as they see fit when seeking guilty verdicts of syndicates’ leadership.
Many police investigations on organized crime ultimately don’t go very far because underlings in a criminal case are quick to take the rap.
Why does this happen? Imagine you are a low-ranking gangster who has been caught trying to set fire to a property after its owners refused to pay protection money. What would you do: confess to the crime or snitch on the people who ordered you to do it?
It’s worth remembering that your lawyer is likely to be provided by the syndicate, with any statements you make being reported back to headquarters.
Should you talk, the possibility of retaliation is very real. If, however, you keep your mouth shut and complete your sentence, the organization is more likely to look after your family, and reward you with a bonus and promotion upon your release. It’s a fairly straightforward choice.
Crime syndicates have allegedly been connected to several high-profile cases over the years, although prosecutors have only been able to acquire guilty verdicts on the individuals involved.
On April 17, 2007, Tetsuya Shiro, a senior member of the Yamaguchi-gumi, shot Nagasaki Mayor Itcho Ito near his campaign office in front of JR Nagasaki Station. Ito died the following morning.
Shiro claimed to have acted alone but police suspected he was acting on orders from higher up. Police officially claimed Ito was assassinated because of a grudge over an insurance claim, but there were also rumors that it was related to city construction projects.
In 1995, Hideo Murai, a member of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, was stabbed repeatedly in front of reporters. The assailant, Hiroyuki Jo, first claimed to be a right-wing activist but was later revealed to be a member of the Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate. His boss, Kenji Kamimine, a former leader of the Mie Prefecture-based Hane-gumi, was charged with ordering the hit but was later cleared by the courts.
In April 2006, real-estate agent Kazuo Nozaki was stabbed to death after being embroiled in a legal dispute with a Goto-gumi front company over the property rights to a building in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. Between 2010 and 2013, a Metropolitan Police Department investigation resulted in the conviction of two members of the Goto-gumi syndicate for the murder. However, criminal charges have never been filed against Tadamasa Goto, the syndicate’s leader at the time.
While the killings described above would probably not have been prevented if prosecutors were able to dangle a plea bargain in front of the suspects that sat in police cells at the time, the ultimate outcome might have been different.
It is expected to take another two years or so for police to formally introduce a system of plea bargains that they might find helpful. Once this is in place, however, prosecutors may adopt a different approach to organized crime.
Police officers sometimes say, “We are like bonsai gardeners — we trim the branches but never pull up the roots.”
The latest changes to the country’s criminal justice system are at least a step in the right direction.
Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.