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Like the media abroad, Japan’s press and television are criticized for sensationalized crime reporting – with one important difference. Critics say they are too slow and too timid in reporting criminal behavior by the nation’s police forces. At a time when random crimes of violence are occurring with alarming frequency, it may be better to err on the side of excess rather than caution. A well-informed public is better able to protect itself, especially when doubts arise about the level of police assistance.

Government bureaucrats seem to take it for granted that many crimes are not being reported, at least not to law-enforcement authorities. The Justice Ministry has just announced a nationwide survey to determine the extent of such “hidden” criminal activity, crimes not reported for whatever reason and incidents not officially recognized as crimes when they occur. Japanese society has long been hailed as safe and comparatively crime-free, and that image has been cultivated by those likely to benefit from it. As the ministry surely knows, however, recent events are dictating a change in attitude. These range from spiraling rates of violent crime by juveniles, including killing without remorse for petty “entertainment” money, cruel abductions and murders of defenseless children and, yes, the rash of illegal acts by officers of the nation’s police forces.

The ministry’s survey is already under way. Some question how accurate it can be, since it is based on replies to a questionnaire submitted to only 3,000 individuals. The eagerly awaited results are to be announced late next month. The timing is curious, since the survey comes just as the nation’s criminal justice and law-enforcement systems are under fire from many quarters for inefficiency and lack of fairness. This may be mere coincidence, however, since it is part of a worldwide research project of the United Nations International Institute for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy. Thirty-three nations, including the Group of Eight, are participating.

The survey marks the first time since 1992 that an organization affiliated with the central government has tackled the subject of unreported crime. Is it significant that it is being conducted by the Justice Ministry’s Research and Training Institute, unlike the one eight years ago that was the responsibility of an organization connected with the National Police Agency? It is fitting that the police are not directly involved when they are under mounting criticism for failing to solve a number of high-profile crimes despite lengthy investigations, for slow responses in cases where the delay may have prolonged the suffering of victims, and for a seemingly endless spate of scandals stemming from aberrant behavior in the ranks.

The last few weeks alone have seen the suspected filing of a false autopsy report by a deputy investigator with the Kanagawa prefectural police, the arrest and dismissal of a senior officer with the Nara prefectural police for allegedly assaulting a woman on her way home from work after having spent an evening drinking with colleagues, and the cancellation by the Hokkaido prefectural police of the promotion of a precinct head because of his alleged involvement in a sexual-harassment incident. Now the Niigata prefectural police acknowledge that they falsely claimed to have discovered the young woman who was abducted as a 9-year-old and confined in a second-floor room for more than nine years, when it was local health officials who found her.

How can police claim they acted “appropriately” in this case? They twice failed to respond to appeals from the health officials to send officers to the house where the alleged abductor was behaving violently. A senior Niigata officer insists they did not “refuse” the requests, yet acknowledges ” we were unable to take immediate action.” An official with the Justice Ministry’s research institute says the goal of the new survey is to uncover the “whole picture” of crime in Japan. The picture must include police inefficiency.

Mr. Setsuo Tanaka, head of the National Police Agency, has called on all prefectural police chiefs to take immediate steps to restore public trust in law-enforcement authorities. The first step should be whatever disciplinary action is needed to bring a quick halt to unethical and even criminal behavior in the ranks, and to the coverups that invariably follow. The next, as many are already saying, should be the urgent implementation of modern investigative techniques to replace traditional methods that are often unsuccessful. The last should be a new level of cooperation, instead of competition, among the regional police forces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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