Criminal justice system reform has been promoted in Japan in the past decade since the arrests of three senior prosecutors over alteration of evidence seized during an investigation into a high-profile postage scandal.
Audio and video recording of interrogations by law-enforcement authorities and a Japanese version of plea bargaining have been launched as part of the reform, but there are issues that remain to be tackled in the criminal justice system.
Monday marked the 10th anniversary of the arrest of the first of the three prosecutors on suspicion of tampering with evidence related to the abuse of a postage discount system for organizations serving people with disabilities. All the three prosecutors were found guilty, while a then-senior welfare ministry bureaucrat was acquitted.
Recording of interrogations became mandatory in 2019 for cases dealt with exclusively by prosecutors and those handled by the lay judge system.
Taping has also increased for other cases on a trial basis. According to the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office, the number of such other cases for which interrogations were fully recorded by prosecutor’s offices across Japan rose from about 30,000 in fiscal 2015 to some 90,000 in fiscal 2019.
But cases for which recording of interrogations is obligatory account for only 2 to 3 percent of all criminal cases. Lawyer groups have called for an expansion of coverage and recording of voluntary interrogations of people before they are arrested.
A Japanese version of plea bargaining was introduced in 2018, and has been used in three incidents.
The system was first used for a corruption case linked to an electric power plant construction project in Thailand. But the prosecutors’ scenario collapsed when an appeals court rejected their claim of conspiracy by a former company executive on the briber’s side with a subordinate.
The second such case was suspected financial misconduct at Nissan Motor Co. over executive pay for former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn. The defense lawyers of Greg Kelly, former representative director of Nissan, who has been arrested and indicted with Ghosn, are disputing the credibility of testimony made by a former head of the president’s office at the company under the plea-bargaining system.
Problems with what is often criticized as “hostage justice,” in which bail requests are often rejected unless suspects admit guilt, have been discussed mainly at the Legislative Council, an advisory panel to the justice minister but the discussions did not lead to reviews of the practice.
There is a sign of change in courts’ attitudes. The share of suspects for which bail requests were approved doubled from 15.6 percent in 2009 to 32.1 percent in 2018.
But Ghosn jumped bail and secretly fled to Lebanon in December 2019 while awaiting trial in Japan.
In addition, House of Representatives lawmaker Tsukasa Akimoto, who was indicted early this year for allegedly receiving bribes in connection with a casino resort project in Japan, was served a new warrant and indicted later this year on suspicion of offering money, while out on bail, to suspected bribers in attempts to persuade them to give false testimony.