Reference | FYI

Japan’s criminal justice reforms aim to enhance transparency of interrogations — are they working?

by Sakura Murakami

Staff Writer

The National Police Agency said in early June that interrogations of crime suspects were fully recorded in 81.9 percent of all the 3,197 cases tried by lay judges in fiscal 2017, up from 72.8 percent the year before.

The data were released ahead of June 2019 — the deadline for implementing full recording of the entire interrogation process in cases subject to lay judge trials. The reform is being implemented as part of a major overhaul of Japan’s criminal justice system. What are the changes and why are the reforms being put into place? Let’s examine the revisions to the criminal justice system in more detail:

How is the criminal justice system changing with regard to interrogations?

By next June, all questioning conducted in cases that will be tried by lay judges, including murder or kidnapping, as well as special investigations by prosecutors will have to be audio recorded or videotaped.

There are some exceptions to the rule, such as when suspects refuse to be recorded, or investigators believe that putting them on record is deterring them from confessing.

However, the mandatory recording under the 2016 revision of the Criminal Procedure Law, which specifies how criminal trials should take place, will only affect some 2 to 3 percent of all cases taken to court. Critics say there is still a long way to go before the criminal justice system can achieve the level of transparency they seek.

What is the importance of recording interrogations?

Japan’s justice system is notorious for its reliance on confessions and testimony when building cases.

This has at times resulted in miscarriages of justice, such as a 1967 murder-robbery case that involved Takao Sugiyama and Shoji Sakurai. The two were sentenced to life in prison in 1970 but found not guilty in 2011 after a retrial, since the judges ruled that there was a lack of hard evidence to support the prosecutors’ case and the confessions of the accused were unreliable.

In a case often referred to as the “Fukawa Incident” the two men were arrested based on their own confessions and witness testimony, despite a lack of physical evidence to support their claims. Sugiyama and Sakurai, who were released on parole in 1996, have both said that their confessions were coerced by investigators.

Experts claim that audio and video recording of the entire interrogation will help detect forced confessions, because suspects’ testimony would change over the course of the questioning to suit the scenario investigators have in mind.

What triggered the overhaul of the criminal justice system?

A string of court cases where the accused was eventually found innocent shed light on some of the questionable practices used by prosecutors during their investigations.

One of the most notorious cases, often referred to as the Postal Fraud Case, involved Atsuko Muraki — at the time a senior bureaucrat at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. Muraki was accused of forging a governmental certification so that an organization could get postal discounts. She was charged with document forgery in 2009, with prosecutors suspecting that she had instructed a junior official to issue the bogus certification.

However, the junior official, who was charged with conspiring with Muraki, later accused prosecutors of coercing false confessions from him and fabricating the involvement of his boss in the case. Muraki was acquitted in 2010.

The high-profile case met with public anger and threw into question what goes on behind the closed doors of the interrogation room.

The Justice Ministry pledged to make the criminal investigation process more transparent and break away from the justice system’s reliance on confessions and testimony. The newly revised law is a result of that overhaul.

How was the criminal justice system changed?

The initial purpose of the law revision was to make the investigation process more transparent.

The first meetings to draft the legislation focused on recording the investigation process, as well as reducing the prosecutor’s dependency on confessions and testimony.

However, as the draft law was hashed out, prosecutors expressed concern that the recording could deter suspects from confessing. The discussion shifted to “diversifying” the investigation process, and methods to aid investigators such as the Japanese-style plea-bargaining system and expansion of cases subject to wiretapping were added in the reform.

Although experts have welcomed some of the revisions, such as an increase in criminal cases that allow for state-appointed lawyers, many are wary of the trade-offs that were made in return.

What changes have already been made to the criminal justice system?

Some changes have already taken effect, such as the introduction of a bargaining system that allows criminal suspects to negotiate deals with prosecutors in exchange for information on other criminals. Judges also now have the authority to provide those who testify at court with immunity from prosecution.

An expansion of the scope of criminal cases subject to wiretapping by investigators has also already taken effect. Most of the changes to the criminal justice system were brought about through an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Law. Those revisions are being implemented incrementally over the course of a three year period through 2019.