Japan's Inept Guardians
ON the face of it at least, Japan’s police are the most brilliant law enforcers in world history.
Greater Tokyo, after all, is a megalopolis of about 37 million people, where the kind of crime regarded as routine in most foreign cities is virtually unknown. According to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there were about half the number of burglaries in Tokyo last year as there were in New York, a smaller city, and less than a fifth the number of homicides.
Even in the seediest parts of town, women walk home alone late at night without fear of being molested.
The police believe that because Japan is one of the world’s most crime-free societies, they must be great crime fighters.
In fact, the opposite is true: Japan is peaceful, safe and regimented not because of, but despite, the frequently disgraceful performance of its guardians.
Individually, many Japanese police officers are honest and dedicated. But as an institution, the force they serve is arrogant, complacent and incompetent.
Rarely has this been so obvious as in the last few days.
Japan has been reeling over the case of a 45-year-old Nepalese man, Govinda Prasad Mainali, who returned to Kathmandu last weekend after 15 years in detention. At the end of a prolonged trial (he was first cleared in a lower court), he was convicted of murdering a Japanese woman in Tokyo in 1997. The evidence was circumstantial; Govinda insisted on his innocence. After years of badgering by his lawyers, prosecutors finally surrendered DNA samples, which made it clear that he had told the truth, and that another, unidentified, man had carried out the crime.
Police accounts have presented the failure to test the samples as regrettable absent-mindedness, but the whole case has about it the stink of conspiracy.
Japan’s normally forgiving newspapers have reported that, among other irregularities, detectives bullied and bribed witnesses into signing false statements, and found one of them a job after he gave evidence damaging to Govinda. In the past two years, two other long-serving prisoners have been granted retrials after it became obvious that they were not guilty of the murders for which they’d been convicted more than 18 years earlier.
There have been other scandals, like the family in Chiba Prefecture who repeatedly complained about a stalker.
The officers at the local police station were about to go on a three-day junket, and took no action; by the time they returned, the stalker had stabbed a woman and her mother to death.
On June 15, the Tokyo police scored what in different circumstances could have been a public relations victory: the arrest of Katsuya Takahashi, the last fugitive of Aum Shinrikyo, the apocalyptic cult that released sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995. But even this breakthrough, which closes the file on one of Japan’s biggest criminal investigations, has only drawn attention to a catalog of police failures.
The sarin attack was the culmination of years of criminal behaviour, including at least 15 murders, by the cult. The police had ignored repeated warnings from anxious citizens. Even after they were jolted into action by the subway attack, which killed 13 people and sickened 6,000 more, it took the police 17 years to apprehend Takahashi and two fellow fugitives. One of them faced surprising difficulties in trying to surrender himself; he was turned away from one police station because the officer on duty assumed that it was a hoax.
All law enforcement agencies make mistakes, but the best improve by learning from them. Japan’s police are rarely called to account, either by the media, which is indulgent of all but its most extreme failings, or by a toothless supervisory agency. Certain policing – the local, grass-roots work of directing traffic, helping confused pedestrians and reassuring people that everything is under control – is done very well in Japan. But against out-of-the-ordinary crimes, the Japanese police are ill equipped.
One reason: Japanese investigators rely on confessions far more than their Western counterparts. The police are skilled at persuading suspects – guilty or not – to confess. (In this they are aided greatly by their ability to hold a suspect without charge for up to 23 days).
Without an admission of guilt, prosecutors are reluctant to charge. But the dependence on confessions means Japanese detectives are not used to building cases and proving guilt.
In researching a book about the notorious killer and serial rapist Joji Obara, who operated for years under the noses of the police, I talked to detectives who were almost indignant about his refusal to confess. The idea that cunning, stubbornness and lies were to be expected from a criminal – that it was in order to deal with such people that the police existed – didn’t seem obvious to them at all. In their minds, they weren’t incompetent or unimaginative or lazy. They were the unlucky victims of that rare thing in the world’s most law-abiding country: the dishonest criminal.