A hospital in Osaka began performing autopsies to investigate causes of death at police request in April for cases in which foul play is not strongly suspected, in response to a chronic shortage of anatomists in Japan.

Osaka Habikino Medical Center became the first institution in the nation other than forensic medicine classes of university hospitals to perform autopsies in such cases, under a new law on death causes and identity investigations, according to sources.

The law, which took effect in April 2013, allows institutions to perform autopsies without the consent of the next of kin if the police judge it necessary to investigate the causes of death of people who are not suspected of dying as a result of foul play, which usually gives rise to the need for judicial autopsies.

The new autopsy system was introduced to prevent crimes from going unnoticed, after a sumo wrestler who was beaten to death in 2007 was initially deemed to have died from disease because the police did not request a judicial autopsy on him.

In 2016, around 11,000 judicial autopsies and autopsies under the new law were performed across Japan.

But there are only 143 anatomists who can perform autopsies in Japan, and 15 of the 47 prefectures have only one apiece.

The medical center in Habikino started performing autopsies in southern Osaka Prefecture in April to help address the imbalance.

Satomu Morita, a 35-year-old doctor who performs autopsies at the center, is normally a lung cancer specialist. But he is also a qualified doctor of legal medicine and has conducted some 20 autopsies under the new law.

According to Morita, most medical students wish to become clinicians, and even those with an interest in legal medicine tend to avoid the field because the career options are limited to forensic medicine classes at university hospitals.

“Knowledge of legal medicine can be utilized in clinical practice,” Morita said. “I want to show through my activities that they can go together.”

Scholars of legal medicine also welcome the move toward expanding the range of anatomists.

“With more and more elderly people dying solitary deaths, it would be very significant if clinicians at regional hospitals could investigate the causes of death,” said Osaka University professor Hiroshi Matsumoto.

Kindai University professor Shinji Tatsumi said autopsies performed under the new law have epidemiological significance, in addition to discovering the causes of death.

“It would be desirable for autopsy data to be shared in the medical field,” Tatsumi said.

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