Why is the Conviction Rate in Japan so High?

by Nicola Spendlove
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Japan is famous for being an extremely ordered country, and so it makes sense in a way that the court system would be very effective. Even withstanding this expectation, the conviction rates in Japan are likely to make your jaw drop.

Japan has one of the highest conviction rates in the world, coming in at roughly 99.9% (there is some debate on the exact numbers). Even if it is not exact, anything close to this figure is truly astronomical. There are a number of unique factors within the Japanese justice system that lead to this consistently high statistic.

In this article, we’ll examine just how a conviction rate like this can be nationally established and maintained.

The historic gatehouse of Kanazawa Prison in Ishikawa Prefecture.

Historical Background

In order to understand phenomena we see within the Japanese justice system, one must first delve into the system’s history. After World War II, the current Japanese constitution was established. With this came the introduction of the current justice system. The current justice system is adversarial, as is the case in most Western countries.

An adversarial justice system involves prosecution and a defense side, each given equal opportunity to argue their case in front of an impartial party. In the case of the current Japanese justice system, this impartial party is a judge.

However, pre-war the justice system in Japan was extremely different. It operated under an inquisitorial model, which meant the court (and by extension the judge) was not impartial. In fact, the court played an active role in gathering facts for the case on behalf of the state – therefore, the judge was by nature of the role biased in favor of the state’s argument.

On paper, the judge in a Japanese court may be listed as an impartial party. However, it is hard for a nation to fully transition into an adversarial model in just a few short decades without retaining some form of a hangover from the way things were once done. Anecdotally, many argue that Japanese judges remain strongly on the side of the prosecution and that there is a huge pressure on the judges to convict in accordance with these loyalties of old.

A modern county courthouse in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture.

Precision Justice

The principle of precision justice is extremely prevalent within the Japanese justice system. This essentially means that the prosecution is expected to present an airtight case to the courts. In other countries, the state may present cases with a reasonable chance of conviction – whereas in Japan the state will only present cases that are virtually certain of conviction.

This is for a number of reasons – firstly, Japan is very proud of its high conviction rate. In order to retain these statistics, cases that are in any way flimsy on evidence are not brought to the courts. In addition, the personal reputations of prosecution lawyers very much ride on winning their cases. Many prosecution lawyers advance their careers in the field through their personal positive conviction rates – incentivizing the win even further. Prosecution lawyers will, therefore, be risk-averse in terms of what cases they take on, as they want to be guaranteed the legal victory. One could argue that this further clouds the decisions of judges – to deliver a guilty verdict to a prosecution lawyer could be taken highly personally by the lawyer, and would likely lead to a messy appeals process.

Another consequence of precision justice is that many cases never see the inside of the courtroom. In fact, some 60% of accused parties never go to trial. If these numbers were more widely included within conviction rate statistics, it would paint a very different picture of the Japanese justice system. The tendency to err towards cases with a near 100% chance of conviction has arguably resulted in a lack of justice for many victims of crime.

Historic Abashiri Prison in Hokkaido that opened in 1890, now turned into a museum.

Procedural Differences

Within the Japanese justice system, there is generally no allowance for bail. Following the initial arrest, suspects can be detained for a total of 20 days per crime after the initial 72-hour holding. Suspects are intensively questioned for the period of detainment, and their rights are very different from individuals detained in Western countries. If you’re a foreigner being detained for a crime in Japan, the police may be even harsher – read more about this here.

One striking difference is the involvement of legal counsel. While Japanese detainees are entitled to free legal counsel, their representative cannot be present for questioning. Questioning can, and often does, begin before the detainee has had the chance to meet with their assigned legal counsel. Interrogators have no legal obligation to record their interviews – which leaves room for corruption and violence, although obtaining confession under duress is technically illegal in the Japanese constitution. Incentives to confess for the detainee are plentiful – a confession can lead to significantly more lenient sentencing. This challenging dynamic can often lead to a false confession, often referred to as hostage justice. Figures from an insightful 2013 article in The Economist indicated that 95% of Japanese detainees eventually sign confessions.

Within the Japanese justice system, obtaining a confession from a suspect virtually guarantees conviction. With more restriction on Japanese police insofar as how they can investigate cases than their Western counterparts (such as undercover work), the confession is widely regarded as the “king of evidence”. This is partly why interviewers will put such huge pressure on suspects to confess to crimes at the detainment stage.

A local police car, usually marked by a prefecture’s kanji characters followed by 警察; meaning police.

Pressure on Judges

We have already touched on some reasons that judges in Japan may be inherently biased towards the prosecution, but unfortunately, there are more to take into account.

One such example is the prevalence of media leaks. It is not unusual for the prosecution to leak information about a case to the Japanese media. This is a tactical move designed to stoke outrage in the public about the alleged crimes of the accused. This public outcry for justice increases the pressure on judges to convict in favor of the prosecution.

Another example is the career consequences of acquitting cases. Although first published in 1999, this superb paper written by academics from the University of Munich highlights struggles that almost certainly still face judges in Japan today. A significant number of judges who had acquitted cases were subsequently redeployed to less respected roles within the system. It seems that judges are indirectly incentivized to convict in line with the prosecution – if they want their careers to continue to progress, they shouldn’t rock the boat (or in this case, the conviction rates).

A bounty board commonly seen outside police boxes offering rewards for turning in most wanted fugitives.

Changes in Justice System

One major change that has occurred within the Japanese justice system in recent years is the introduction of something resembling the Western jury system. In 2009, saiban-in (lay judges) selected randomly from the public were first introduced in Japanese criminal courts to complement the work of the traditional judge.

There are a number of interesting differences between saiban-in and a Western jury, including the fact that saiban-la can directly participate in the questioning of the accused and can make recommendations around the length and nature of sentencing. While this arguably has had the positive effect of helping the Japanese public to participate more actively in the court system, it has had little effect on the conviction rate. In fact, saiban-in has requested harsher sentences than those originally proposed by the prosecution in some cases. If you want to read more about the saiban-la system, this paper is a great place to start.

The Japanese justice system is an extremely nuanced one, standing on the shoulders of an interesting history and layered societal expectations. If I had to give you some advice based on my own research, I would strongly suggest avoiding being accused of a crime you didn’t commit when in Japan.

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