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Last Updated: Monday, 29 October 2007, 00:04 GMT
'Forced confessions' in Japan
By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

Sachio Kawabata and his wife
Sachio Kawabata says he can never forgive the police for his treatment
The Japanese have one of the lowest crime rates in the developed world.

But 99% of all people accused of breaking laws here are found guilty.

If you are innocent but accused of a crime, unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, there are few safeguards to protect you.

Sachio Kawabata and his wife Junko live on the southern island of Kyushu.

Their lives were turned upside down early one morning when police came to question Mr Kawabata.

They were accusing him - falsely - of buying votes to help secure the election of his wife's cousin, a local politician.

They took him in for questioning and subjected him to extraordinary pressure trying to make him confess.

A court later acquitted all those police had connected with the crime.

'Insulting treatment'

"The detective grabbed my ankles so I gripped the chair thinking he was about to pull me off it," Mr Kawabata says.

"He said to the other detective, 'Kawabata has no blood or tears,' meaning I was cruel, I had no feelings. 'Look,' he said, 'he can tread on his fathers and grandchildren.'"

The detective lifted up Mr Kawabata's legs and made him stamp on sheets of paper which had his loved ones' names on. He made him do it 10 times.


In Japanese culture this is very insulting.

"It's something you should never do," says Mr Kawabata. "It's what the Christians were forced to do in Japan a long time ago, to step on images of Christ. We should never do that, especially to those who have passed away.

"As time passes I get more and more angry about it. It was unforgivable."

Toshihiro Futokoro was another of those arrested in connection with the same alleged vote-buying scandal.

He too was interrogated for hours on end.

'Forced confession'

Again the pressure was relentless.

He had done nothing wrong. And after three days he could not take it any more.

Toshihiro Futokoro
Toshihiro Futokoro says he was under pressure to confess

His wife was being interrogated too and neither of them could cope.

Mr Futokoro said they decided to try to end it all.

"My wife said, 'I've been forced to make a false confession - I think it would be better for us if we take our own lives.' We tried to hang ourselves in a field near our house. But my son found us. He stopped us.

"So I came to this spot by the river and I jumped in and tried to commit suicide, but my nephew saved me." But even after he had tried to kill himself the police came back, arrested him and locked him up for months. In the end he decided to confess.

"The detectives were saying, 'Everyone is confessing, you are the only one who refuses,'" he explains.

"They kept on at me to confess. So I thought, it's probably better to make the false confession and that's why I did it. "

"You have to understand I was under relentless interrogation every single day. There is no word to describe how horrible that was."

King of evidence

These people were not criminals. Earlier this year a local court acquitted all who had been charged in connection with the supposed vote-buying scandal. It found that their confessions had been made up.

For these kinds of problems that depend on how one feels inside we have to rely on confessions
Retired detective Eichi Tamiya

The judge said those who appeared before him had made their confessions in despair while going through marathon questioning.

Eichi Tamiya is a retired detective.

He says that in Japan the confession is regarded by police as "the king of evidence".

It is useful when a crime depends on a subjective feeling.

"For example, when one kills a person," he says, "only a confession can tell us whether the suspect was just trying to injure the victim who died, or whether he intended to kill them.

"Or take bribery, " he says. "Circumstantial evidence alone cannot explain whether or not the receiver knew why he was being given the money. For these kinds of problems that depend on how one feels inside we have to rely on confessions."

So if the police think you have committed a crime they do all they can to make you confess.

Long detentions

In Japan it can be difficult to resist police demands for you to tell them what they want to hear.

Under this system I think Japan is not a society where you have fair trials
Makoto Teranaka, Amnesty International

Yasuo Shionoya, a defence lawyer, says even if he suspects his client has been forced to make a false confession there is little he can do unless he can find something in the statement that cannot possibly be right.

"Innocent people do end up making confessions," he says. "It's rare but it's true it happens."

The system of long detention before trial for questioning is known in Japanese as "daiyo kangoku" - substitute prison.

The head of Amnesty International in Japan is Makoto Teranaka. His organisation wants to see the system reformed.

"It is torture," he insists, "psychological torture. Under this system I think Japan is not a society where you have fair trials."

"These people are isolated and cannot have the lawyers inside their detention cell. People who are suspected are excluded from normal society and they are 100% under the control of the police," he says.

"This has been criticised by lawyers and international organisations like the United Nations who say that this constitutes torture or ill treatment inside the police cell."

Judicial reforms

BBC News asked the Japanese government to respond to that allegation and to explain why Japan has not introduced electronic recordings of police interviews as recommended by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, but no one was available to comment.

Bringing in ordinary citizens... that's revolutionary
Robert Prect, US lawyer

In two years' time an important change will allow people a greater say in the justice system.

Ordinary people will join the judges on the bench as lay judges to hear the most serious cases.

Six of them will sit with three professional judges to try each case.

They will also, unlike juries in Britain, be able to help determine the sentence if the accused is found guilty of a crime.

Robert Prect is an American lawyer who is advising the Japanese on how to implement the new system. He believes it will make a difference.

"It's really going to change the way that justice is meted out in this country," he says.

"At the moment they have a system that lacks, from a western standpoint, the traditional safeguards of judicial independence and impartiality that we're accustomed to."

"Now, with bringing in ordinary citizens, six of them, they will conceivably have the ability to influence verdicts. And that's revolutionary."

The new system of lay judges will only be used to try the most serious crimes.

Unable to forgive

But even if the new system had been in place it would not have helped Sachio Kawabata.

He is now campaigning for further changes in the law, in particular the introduction of electronic recording of police interviews.

He has sued the police successfully for the way that he was treated, but he says he will not rest until more widespread improvements are made to the criminal justice system.

"I can't forgive and I can't forget," he says.

"I will never forget the sound of the spring on the door when it opened and closed when they locked me in the interrogation room. I can still hear the sound in my ears. I can never forgive them."

Country profile: Japan
26 Sep 07 |  Country profiles

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