National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Once falsely convicted in Japan, rarely exonerated

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

A lot of eating goes on in the new documentary “Gokutomo” (“Friends in Prison”), which is about five men, all convicted of murder, who spent many years in prison. Watching one of them casually buy a sweet bean bun at a convenience store, you realize that, as an indulgence, food can be the most obvious marker of freedom. Locked up for decades for crimes they say they didn’t commit, these men appreciate the relative luxury of being able to eat any time they want to.

The director, Kim Sung-woong, began filming in 2010 as a means of finding out how one of the men, Kazuo Ishikawa, who spent more than 30 years in prison for allegedly killing a high school girl in 1963 before being paroled in 1994, was adjusting to life on the outside. At the time, Ishikawa had asked for a retrial to prove his innocence. (Now 79, he is still trying to get a retrial.)

Kim learned that Ishikawa befriended four other men in Chiba Prison who claimed they were wrongly convicted of murder, including two on death row. In 2011, two of the men, Takao Sugiyama and Shoji Sakurai, were acquitted of the same 1967 robbery-murders in a retrial. Similarly, Toshikazu Sugaya was acquitted in 2010 of the 1990 murder of a little girl after serving 17 years of a life sentence. The fifth member of this select club and oldest is 81-year-old Iwao Hakamada, who was convicted in 1966 of killing a family. Out on provisional release since 2014, Hakamada is technically still on death row as he waits for his own retrial.

Kim has already released two related documentaries, one about Hakamada and the other about Ishikawa. “Gokutomo” is mainly about the five men’s relationship, which has become more intense since their release. Although the movie presents various explanations of why they believe they were framed for murder — poverty, juvenile delinquency, discrimination — it focuses on their coming to terms with freedom. It is an optimistic, some might even say sunny, film. With the exception of Hakamada, the men even characterize their time behind bars as being good for them in the sense that they learned to appreciate life for what it is.

Enzai (a false conviction) is not exactly a journalistic cottage industry, but the dramatic potential of such stories makes it a magnet for reporters, who usually don’t have to do much to make them interesting. While Kim is himself part of the action in “Gokutomo” — participating in parties and playing shogi with Hakamada — he doesn’t probe his subjects about the processes that convicted them or led to their release. These matters come up but aren’t pursued, because they are not the point of the movie.

A similar approach was the most salient feature of an article that appeared in January in the weekly magazine Sunday Mainichi, which described an incident that occurred on Jan. 8. In 2007, Norimichi Kumamoto, one of the judges who signed off on Hakamada’s death sentence, publicly regretted his decision, saying he never thought there was enough evidence to convict Hakamada, much less sentence him to death, but that he felt pressured to do so. Ever since Hakamada’s release he wanted to meet him to apologize, but he was never able to do so.

Kumamoto is now bedridden in Fukuoka, and Hakamada’s sister and guardian, Hideko, took her brother to see him. The Mainichi reporter describes the scene in heartbreaking detail, Kumamoto struggling to speak with tears streaming down his face, Hakamada seemingly oblivious to his pain due to his own diminished cognitive capacity. (Later, he said the retired judge looked like someone from his trial but that “his face had changed.”)

Hakamada is the poster boy for false convictions, partly because he spent so long in prison, partly because the case was so sensational and partly because Hideko has worked so tirelessly toward his exculpation; but mainly because of what the daily threat of extinction did to his mind. Although it’s now generally assumed Hakamada is innocent, the authorities continue to exercise every means at their disposal to prove that their initial charges and decisions were valid. It is easier for prosecutors and judges to do this in Japan because of conditions peculiar to the system, such as the primacy of confessions, the broad acceptance of circumstantial evidence and, most significantly, the state’s ability to appeal verdicts it disagrees with. These factors are almost never questioned by the press. All that matters is the story itself.

The exception is Enzai File, a magazine published three times a year that covers nothing but cases which have ended in — or are believed to have ended in — false convictions. The articles address the legal ramifications of these cases. There are publications for scholars and law professionals that do the same thing, but Enzai File is designed for general readers. Some famous people, including documentary filmmaker Tatsuya Mori and former lawmaker and capital punishment critic Shizuka Kamei, have written for the magazine.

False convictions are hardly unique to Japan. A recent piece in The New York Times reports that at least 139 “convicted defendants” in the United States were exonerated last year thanks to the efforts of lawyers who re-studied their cases. Improved DNA testing has a lot to do with it — Sugaya’s exoneration was based on new DNA evidence, as was that of a Nepalese man convicted of killing a Tokyo woman in 1997 — but in general, legal experts in Japan who advocate for people they think have been wrongfully accused have a tougher time because the system is stacked against them. This June, plea bargaining will be introduced in Japan, and some fear it could lead to even more false charges.

A number of high-profile false-conviction cases may be retried soon, including Hakamada’s, so it will be interesting to see if the press does more than just highlight their dramatic aspects. Perhaps the most affecting thing in “Gokutomo” is how Sakurai has forgiven his persecutors. Having been to hell and back, he has that privilege. The rest of us perhaps shouldn’t be so complacent.