How does Japan Have a 99% Conviction Rate?

Japan is a remarkably safe society with a low crime rate. It belongs to the most peaceful countries in the world. This country also incarcerates fewer people than in other wealthy countries. The number of prisoners in Japan is also low compared to other countries. As of 2015, Japan has 48 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, while Britain has 148 per 100,000, and the USA has 698 per 100,000.

The conviction rate is also unbelievable. The system has a conviction rate usually described as 99.9%, but according to a professor at the Doshisha Law School in Kyoto, the conviction rate is around 99.4%. No matter what the exact number is, having a rate of above 99% is downright far-fetched. Does Japan really have a super excellent police and justice system? Are the police almost perfect that they almost always put criminals behind bars and always have the evidence to prove every case? But that’s not the truth in Japan. It’s kind of hard to believe, knowing that the country is so advanced and better than most countries in many ways, but the justice system in Japan is apparently corrupt.

Japan’s Hostage Justice

The criminal system of Japan has been considered as a form of “hostage justice,” according to the appeal by Japanese lawyers, professors, and other legal professionals. Suspects are interrogated without counsel or charge for up to 23 days, and without requiring disclosure of exculpatory evidence. The professionals are still unequivocal in the belief about the issue despite reforms, so the system still contributes to a wrongful conviction.

To further understand this kind of justice, read the reasons why Japan has an extremely high and almost perfect conviction are:

Verdicts are based purely on confessions, and a lot of innocent people are confessing.

If you’re innocent, why would you confess to a crime you didn’t commit? This is a rhetorical question with sense. It may be difficult for most people to understand, but for the Japanese, it’s harder than you think. It makes you think about the kind of pressure they’re put in to accept a life behind bars even if they did not commit the crime.

Unlike an American or a British court where it is only necessary to prove the facts, Japanese courts give great importance to motive. The reasoning and impulses that lead to a crime must be proved in court, as they are a crucial factor in determining the criminal sentence of a convicted suspect. The answers to who, what, where, and when aren’t enough – a judge demands to know why. Because of that, a detective is obliged to get inside the head of the convicted, and the only way to do this is to obtain a confession.

In some cases, the police only carry out physical investigation after obtaining a confession. This is because a suspect may disclose incriminating information that’s unknown to the detectives, which will be confirmed by an investigation, making the confession more convincing. In other countries, the police can do undercover operations, wire-tapping, and plea-bargaining, but in Japan, the police were not allowed to do this, so they rely on confession.

But why are the Japanese suspects eager to confess, even to a crime they did not commit? A lawyer named Yoji Ochiai thinks that it is because of the Japanese psyche. Traditionally, people think that they should not stand up against authorities, so criminals confess easily.

The police tend to take their assignments very seriously, pressuring suspects to confess, which puts the accused under great stress. Shoji Sakurai, a man who spent 29 years in jail for a robbery-murder he was wrongly accused of, said he was treated like a guilty criminal by the police. He was interrogated day and night, and after a few days, he lost mental strength, so he gave up and simply confessed.

Sadly, even if those wrongly convicted managed to prove their innocence, it became nearly impossible to receive an official apology.

Japan has a conservative constitutional court.

A big reason why the conviction rates in Japan exceed 99% is that a personnel office can penalize Japanese judges if they rule in the ways the office dislikes. Using data on the careers and opinions of 321 Japanese judges, the judges who acquit tend to have a worse career after the acquittal. The punished judges aren’t even those who acquit because the prosecutor charged the wrong person, but for reasons of statutory or constitutional interpretation, often in politically-charged cases. Thus, the punishment seems unrelated to any pro-conviction bias. The high conviction rates reflect the selection of cases and low prosecutorial budgets.

The Supreme Court of Japan is considered the most conservative constitutional court in the world, according to David S. Law of Washington University. Since the court was created in 1947, it has struck down only eight statutes on constitutional grounds. In comparison, the constitutional court of Germany established several years later, has struck down more than 600 laws.

Japanese prosecutors need to save face.

Japanese prosecutors also have a fear of losing face. They see the “not guilty” verdict as a sign of defeat, or they think that humiliation must not be accepted. Once they have decided to prosecute, they will not accept being shown in the wrong. In the rare case of having a not-guilty verdict, prosecutors in Japan will continue to appeal to regain the dignity of the office.

Prosecutors are also extremely competent, and they do their job very well. Because of that, they can fall into thinking that they do not make any mistakes. The conviction rates are high, but it amounts to an official endorsement of the infallibility of the prosecutors. Human errors and failings are rarely recognized, for this will undermine the benevolent social order that the prosecutors represent.