Crime and Punishment in Japan: A Holistic Perspective (2023)

Japan's criminal justice system has become a target of international criticism since the arrest, detention and escape of former Nissan executive Carlos Ghosn. While the author recognizes the need for targeted reforms, he calls for a holistic understanding of the system in the context of Japanese culture and society.

Japan's criminal justice system came under severe scrutiny after the November 2018 arrest of Carlos Ghosn, former Nissan chairman. Many outside Japan were shocked to learn of a system where suspects and defendants can be held for months and subjected to endless interrogations until they confess. The Ghosn case has brought this “hostage justice” system into the spotlight.

Ghosn is hardly a figurehead for those wrongly accused. My aim here, however, is neither to condemn nor to defend his conduct, but to use his case and the criticisms it aroused as a stepping stone to a more holistic assessment of the Japanese criminal justice system - including its merits as well as its shortcomings - with a Emphasis on underlying attitudes towards crime and punishment.

Criminal Proceedings and the Ghosn Case

Let's start with an overview of the Japanese criminal process through the lens of the Ghosn case.

On November 19, 2018, Carlos Ghosn, then CEO of Nissan, was arrested at Tokyo's Haneda Airport on suspicion of financial irregularities. On December 10, the Tokyo District Procuratorate charged him with failing to declare his income in violation of the Financial Instruments and Stock Exchange Law. Ghosn was re-arrested twice and was only released on bail on March 6, 2019. He was arrested a fourth time on April 4 and released on bail on April 25 under extremely restrictive conditions. On December 30, 2019, Ghosn fled to Lebanon in violation of his bail conditions.

According to the Japanese Code of Criminal Procedure, the police have 48 hours after an arrest to refer the case to the prosecutor's office. The prosecutor then has up to 24 hours to either charge the suspect or request a judge to detain him for a further 10 days. A further extension of 10 days can then be granted. Overall, a suspect can be held in this way without charge for a maximum of 23 days after arrest. This in itself is not very unusual; other countries have preload detention periods of between 16 and 30 days.

The big problem is that prosecutors in Japan can easily circumvent this limit by re-arresting the suspect on various charges before the 23 days are up. In some cases, they keep arresting a person by breaking a single case into multiple crimes. This is exactly what happened to Ghosn, who has been arrested four times in total. During long detention suspects are often grilled for hours (although recent reforms have helped curb harsh interrogation techniques). Also problematic from the point of view of international norms is the fact that defense counsel are not allowed to be present during the interrogation process.

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Ghosn and his lawyers have been vocal in denouncing this system, citing Japanese prosecutors' conviction rate of 99.9% as the reason for his flight that he could never have received a fair trial in Japan. (Others have suggested that Ghosn was primarily motivated by a desire to avoid a civil trial, since his criminal trial would undoubtedly have resulted in a suspended sentence.)

A 99.9% conviction rate is hard to justify. My goal here isn't to defend it, but to put it in the context of a system that, by and large, has worked quite well for Japan.

Japan's strange criminal courts

Westerners tend to view criminal courts as the place for deciding conflicting claims regarding an accused's guilt or innocence. In Japan, however, it rarely works that way. In about 70% of the cases that come to court, the accused has already confessed to all the allegations. After the prosecutor's opening speech, the defense attorney immediately admits the accused's guilt. The defense then puts a number of witnesses on the stand to testify of the defendant's remorse in order to obtain a lenient sentence. The goal in most cases is a suspended conviction, and that is often the result.

In the remaining 30% of criminal cases, the defense typically argues that the charges are too severe – for example, that the defendant is guilty of manslaughter but not murder. Rarely does a defense attorney appear before a Japanese court and protest the innocence of the accused.

In short, in Japan, a criminal court is basically a place to ask for clemency, not to argue a person's guilt or innocence. From a Western point of view, such a procedure hardly deserves the name process. How did such a system come about?

Historical background

Japan's first encounter with the western world was in the 16th century, in the age of navigation, but it was not until the second half of the 19th century - after the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry's ships in 1853 - that western ideas and systems began to emerge incursions in Japan. With the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan rushed to transform itself from a semi-feudal society into a modern nation-state. In the process, she quickly established a national assembly, a code of law, and a Western-style judicial system.

France provided the models for Japan's first modern legal systems and early courts (designed by French jurist Gustave-Emil Boissonade). In the early 20th century, however, the influence of German legal thought began to dominate, and the 1907 revision of the Penal Code reflected this trend. Japan's penal code has changed little since then, despite the promulgation of a new constitution drafted by the occupation authorities after World War II.

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From a formal point of view, therefore, Japan's criminal justice system very superficially resembles the continental model. The differences stem from typically Japanese procedures and practices, many of which stem from ingrained ideas of crime and punishment.

Of course, Japanese criminal justice did not start in the Meiji era. Public safety was a major concern during the Edo period (1603–1868), particularly in relation to the capital, Edo (present-day Tokyo), an urban center of over 1 million people. Despite the lack of western-style law enforcement and criminal justice, Edo was a very safe city, just like Tokyo is today. In fact, Japan is known for both its low crime rate and very low incarceration rate.

Catch but don't punish

An important differentiator of the Japanese criminal justice system is the high detection rate. While the reality isn't quite as impressive as the myth, the speed at which serious crimes are solved in Japan is still quite impressive.

While the system is intent on apprehending criminals, it is not particularly intent on punishing them; But on the contrary. The vast majority of criminal cases that reach Japanese prosecutors are resolved through "suspended prosecution," i. H. without charge, or in summary prosecution, an informal process that usually ends with the imposition of a fine. In this way, most offenders avoid the social stigma of a trial. Furthermore, while 99.9% of cases brought to trial end in conviction, sentences are often suspended and the prison system is geared towards rehabilitation, early release and reintegration into society.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to conclude from this description that the system as a whole is simply crime-friendly. Indeed, people found guilty of the most serious crimes face very harsh penalties, including the death penalty, especially if they show no remorse. And since these are the cases that get the most media attention, the public is largely unaware of how lenient the system is to the typical offender.

Japan's Unique Social Context

If people who break the law are treated so leniently, what prevents them from committing other crimes? In Japan, volunteer probation and parole officers play a key role in monitoring those released from custody or prison, and this approach has proven very effective in preventing recidivism. The rate of first-time juvenile delinquents in Japan is not particularly low by international standards, but 90% of these offenders are never arrested, indicating a very low recidivism rate. In this way, Japan has maintained law and order without excessive police or criminal scrutiny.

In short, despite Japan's 99.9% conviction rate, there are aspects of the system worth admiring and possibly even emulating in the West. As it turns out, however, this is a tough sell. The reasons are complex, but the main factors I believe are as follows.

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  1. The hard data required for a rigorous comparative study is not available, largely because Japanese police, prosecutors and prisons believe secrecy is essential to the system's continued effectiveness.
  2. Japan's low crime rate must be attributed in large part to factors outside the criminal justice system, as suggested by the law-abiding, orderly behavior of Japanese citizens during natural disasters and other emergencies.
  3. One of the factors contributing to this behavior in emergencies is the fact that local yakuza gangs have traditionally rallied to protect ordinary citizens at such times - not an approach to recommend to other countries, even if you have the guts has to discuss it in order to defy the taboos of the Japanese.
  4. The volunteer citizens who play such an important role in preventing recidivism in Japan are rewarded for their service with a direct audience with the emperor (as are the correctional officers).
  5. Japan has the advantage of a comparatively cohesive society free from serious racial or religious divisions and relatively close police-community ties. Dialogue between police and correctional officers on the one hand and suspects and prisoners on the other also contributes to the successful rehabilitation of offenders, although this factor is difficult to quantify.

In short, Japan's low crime rate cannot simply be attributed to specific features of its criminal justice system, which is isolated from the broader social context.

A culture of redemption

In my view, the traditional Japanese treatment of criminals reflects ingrained cultural attitudes towards crime and redress.

From a cultural-anthropological perspective, Ruth Benedict famously emphasized the role of shame versus the threat of punishment in maintaining social order in Japanese society (in her 1946 paperThe Chrysanthemum and the Sword). And while Benedict's characterization of Japan as a "culture of shame" had a decidedly negative bias, scholars such as sociologist Sakuta Keiichi have now emphasized the societal value of shame.(*1)Others have emphasized the indigenous Japanese conceptCloth(sin or guilt) as a state of defilement in need of purification. Such analyzes provide a powerful cultural context for the Japanese system's focus on remorse as opposed to punishment.

From a religious perspective, the idea that no one is beyond salvation is central to the highly influential teachings of the Buddhist monk Shinran (1173–1263), founder of the Jōdo Shinshū sect of Pureland Buddhism. It is a little-known fact that Japanese law enforcement officers are typically members of the Honganji school of Jōdo Shinshū. Historically, the ancient practice of assigning convicted criminals to guard imperial mausoleums also supports the idea of ​​salvation as fundamental to the Japanese treatment of criminals.

The need for targeted reforms

All of this helps explain why the Japanese criminal justice system focuses on arrest, repentance, apology and rehabilitation rather than appropriate punishment as a crime deterrent. Only in this context can we understand the ban on the presence of a lawyer at interrogations.

The critical flaw in this system, of course, is the lack of safeguards to protect those wrongly accused from conviction and punishment.

Miscarriages of justice are not at all common in Japan, where it is difficult to escape the scrutiny of neighbors and the community at large. Yet it is undeniable that innocent people have been charged, tried and convicted. Most notorious are the cases of four convicted prisoners who were retried and exonerated in the 1980s after decades on death row. (They were released and received financial compensation for their years in prison.) This is an area in need of reform.

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On the other hand, the Japanese emphasis on prevention, rehabilitation and reintegration has received high marks in a number of Western studies, including that of legal scholar Daniel Foote (ex-University of Tokyo).(*2)

Unfortunately, criminal justice reform in Japan has been simplisticly presented as a process of correcting Japan's backward approach by adopting laws and procedures based on the superior Western model. Asking Japan to adopt Western systems across the board, regardless of cultural and social context, is no more sensible than asking Western societies to adopt the Japanese system. I believe our best hope for progress is to actively learn from each other's successes and failures while acknowledging our fundamental cultural differences. I hope that future studies of Japanese criminal justice will lead in this direction.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn visits his law firm in March 2019 after being initially released on bail. © Jiji.)

(*1)^Sakuta Keiichi, "A Reconsideration of the Culture of Shame,"Review of Japanese culture and society, Bd. 1, no. 1 (October 1986), pp. 32-39.

(*2)^Siehe Daniel Foote, „The Benevolent Paternalism of Japanese Criminal Justice“ inCalifornia Law ReviewBd. 80 (1992), S. 317-90.


What kind of criminal justice system does Japan have? ›

Japan belongs to an inquisitory system of the criminal process. Therefore, a judge oversees the proceedings and also determines the guilt and the sentence of the accused. The citizen lay judges, as well as professional judges, are allowed to put forth questions to defendants, witnesses, and victims during the trial.

What is the punishment for crimes in Japan? ›

Types of punishments for committing a crime in Japan

These punishments are petty fines, detention, fines, confinement, imprisonment, and the death penalty. In practice, detention is rarely actually given as a punishment.

What is the Japanese argument for capital punishment? ›

Japan retains the death penalty for three main reasons: because it missed a major opportunity for abolition in the postwar Occupation, because of the long hegemony of the (conservative) Liberal Democratic Party, and because (like the United States and China) it has sufficient size, economic influence, and political ...

What method of execution does Japan use? ›

Executions in Japan are carried out by hanging, and the country has seven execution chambers, all located in major cities. After a four-year moratorium, executions resumed in 1993 and up to 15 have taken place almost each year since then.

How does the criminal justice system work in Japan? ›

The court system in Japan consists of summary courts, district courts, family courts, high courts and the Supreme Court of Japan. For criminal cases, a three-tier court system is used: a summary or district court (first instance), a high court (second instance) and finally, the Supreme Court (appeal).

What type of crime is most common in Japan? ›

The most frequently occurring crime in the nation has continued to be theft, making up the majority of the recorded cases.

Is Japan guilty until proven innocent? ›

Ghosn then discussed Japan's 99 percent conviction rate, and explained how in other countries, one is presumed innocent until proven guilty, but in Japan, the defendant is immediately presumed guilty.

How is the Japanese legal system different from the American? ›

Japanese and American Legal Systems

Japan is primarily a civil law country, and the United States is primarily a common law country. These distinctions, however, are not perfect. In the United States, codified law can be found at all jurisdictional levels, and may control the outcome of a dispute.

Why is crime low in Japan? ›

The cultural explanation is simplistic. Explaining low crime with culture is to say that collectivist traits like group-orientation, inclination towards harmony, and high self-control are why the Japanese do not murder, assault, and steal from each other as much as others in different countries.

What is the beliefs convictions of Japanese? ›

No single religion is particularly dominant, and people often follow a combination of practices from multiple religious traditions. According to the Government of Japan, 69.0% of the population practises Shintō, 66.7% practise Buddhism, 1.5% practise Christianity and 6.2% practise other religions as of 2018.

How are prisoners treated in Japan? ›

Standard schedule of Japanese prisons

As shown, Japanese prisons follow very strict schedules down to the minute. Talking is allowed only during exercise and free time, and inmates are only allowed to speak Japanese. Most inmates are put in community cells, which hold 6-12 inmates.

Does Japan believe in corporal punishment? ›

Japan prohibits all corporal punishment of children.

What was the most painful execution method? ›

Flaying—or skinning—was perhaps the most painful of all ancient world execution methods because of its slow process. The victim was first stripped, and their hands and feet bound to stop any movement.

What is the justice system like in Japan? ›

Japan utilizes a three-tiered judicial system and, in most cases, a summary, family, or district court will be the court of first instance depending on the nature of the matter.

Why Japan is the best policing system in the world? ›

Brief Overview of Japanese Police. Japan is famous for its very low crime rate compare to other countries in the world. Japan has 127 million people yet street crime is almost unheard of; and the use of drugs is minimal compared to other industrialized countries.

How does Japan deal with juvenile crime? ›

Juvenile cases are handled by 50 family courts; the proceedings are conducted ex officio by a family court judge without the attendance of a public prosecutor. Hearings are closed to the public and are intended to be sensitive to the juvenile's needs and feelings.

Why does Japan have such a high prosecution rate? ›

The high conviction rate in Japan is not because of forced convictions, but because prosecutors prosecute cases after thoroughly examining whether a crime can be proven. It is the prosecutor who decides whether or not to prosecute a case.

Does Japan have organized crime? ›

A Japanese organized crime group known as yakuza has been in existence for more than 300 years; the group can be traced back to as early as 1612 when group members began to attract the attention of local officials due to their odd clothing, haircuts, and behavior.

Does Japan have a crime problem? ›

So, violence against figures representing the state is deeply ingrained in Japanese political history. In respect of Japan's apparent success in preventing and controlling crime, Japan is famed as a “low-crime nation”.

Is the Japanese legal system fair? ›

Like most legal systems that exist around the world, the Japanese judicial system is tough but fair. Importantly, it works as designed: to keep criminals off the street and create one of the safest nations in the world.

Did the Japanese apologize for their war crimes? ›

In October 2006, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe's apology was followed on the same day by a group of 80 Japanese lawmakers' visit to the Yasukuni Shrine which enshrines more than 1,000 convicted war criminals.

Do you have the right to remain silent in Japan? ›

Your right to remain silent is guaranteed by the Constitution of Japan, however, in reality, it may reinforce the suspicion in the mind of the investigator and can be used as a reason for prolonging the detention. The important thing to remember is that a false confession is dangerous.

Is there equal rights in Japan? ›

Japan has no law prohibiting racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination, or discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Japan does not have a national human rights institution.

Does Japan have equal rights? ›

The Constitution prohibits discrimination of citizens on the basis of race, creed, gender, social status, or family origin; non-citizens are not protected from these forms of discrimination by the constitution nor the law as of 2014.

Are there any unique laws in Japan? ›

In Japan, there is a law called the “Law for Protection of Birds and Wild Animals,” which prohibits individuals from exterminating pigeons. The law regulates the protection and keeping of wild mammals and birds, as well as the protection of the environment, population control, and systems related to hunting.

Is Japan safer than the US? ›

Japan's crime rate is significantly lower than that of the U.S. Does Japan have the lowest crime rate in the world? Though Japan is not ranked as the safest country in the world, it always ranks among the top 10 safest countries.

Why was Japan not tried for war crimes? ›

Airmen of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service and Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service were not charged as war criminals because there was no positive or specific customary international humanitarian law that prohibited the unlawful conduct of aerial warfare either before or during World War II.

Where does Japan rank in crime? ›

STATJapanUnited States
Crime levels12.8 Ranked 18th.55.84 Ranked 30th. 4 times more than Japan
Annual cannabis use0.1% Ranked 7th.13.7% Ranked 1st. 137 times more than Japan
Opiates use0.1% Ranked 8th.0.57% Ranked 3rd. 6 times more than Japan
Murder rate1.025
50 more rows

What are the two major beliefs of Japan? ›

Shinto and Buddhism: The Two Major Religions of Japan.

What are 3 primary values of Japanese culture? ›

Harmony, order, and self-development are three of the most important values that underlie Japanese social interaction. Basic ideas about self and the nature of human society are drawn from several religious and philosophical traditions.

What is the major belief system of ancient Japan? ›

In ancient times, the Japanese believed that all natural phenomena, animals, and plants possesed kami, or divine power. This belief came to be known as Shinto and was established as an official religion after Buddhism and Confucianism were introduced to Japan from the Asian continent.

Why did the Japanese soldiers treat their prisoners so poorly? ›

Japan's early successes in the Far East during the Second World War resulted in over 190,000 British and Commonwealth troops being taken prisoner. Japanese military philosophy held that anyone surrendering was beneath contempt. As a result, their treatment of captives was harsh.

How badly did the Japanese treat prisoners of war? ›

The POWs suffered frequent beatings and mistreatment from their Japanese guards, food was the barest minimum, and disease and injuries went untreated. Although the POWs finally received Red Cross packages in January 1944, the Japanese had removed all the drugs and medical supplies.

What is the Japanese way of discipline? ›

Aside from maintaining the pride of the child, disciplining in private also spares the pride of the parent. In Japanese, discipline is shitsuke—which also translates roughly into training or upbringing. I like the thought of it as training. Parents are expected to model the behavior their children should emulate.

Does Japan enforce child support? ›

In a case where the non-custodial parent resides in Japan and the non-custodial parent fails to pay child support determined by the Family Court, the court can enforce payment.

Do Japanese discipline their children? ›

For the Japanese, discipline is fundamental and must be instilled in children at an early age. Thanks to it and their sense of integrity, the Japanese maintain a sense of order. Often, Westerners are impressed by the Japanese's exquisite manners.

What is the cruelest form of punishment? ›

Scaphism was one of the worst and most painful, skin-crawling methods of torture. It was described by the Greeks as a punishment used by the Persians, and if they are to be believed, those Persians were insane.

Who was the youngest person ever executed? ›

George Stinney Jr.

How does China execute prisoners? ›

Capital punishment in China is a legal penalty. It is commonly applied for murder and drug trafficking, although it is also a legal penalty for various other offenses. Executions are carried out by lethal injection or by shooting.

What is the court system like in Japan? ›

They are not juries but "lay judges" (裁判員 saiban-in) working side by side with the "professional judges". Typically, there are six lay judges and three professional judges for one case. The decision has to be by majority and include at least one of the professional judges.

What is the law enforcement system in Japan? ›

Law enforcement in Japan is provided mainly by prefectural police under the oversight of the National Police Agency. The National Police Agency is administered by the National Public Safety Commission, ensuring that Japan's police are an apolitical body and free of direct central government executive control.

Why does Japan have a 99% conviction rate? ›

It is said that the conviction rate in Japan is over 99%. The high conviction rate in Japan is not because of forced convictions, but because prosecutors prosecute cases after thoroughly examining whether a crime can be proven. It is the prosecutor who decides whether or not to prosecute a case.

Is the Japanese court system fair? ›

Like most legal systems that exist around the world, the Japanese judicial system is tough but fair. Importantly, it works as designed: to keep criminals off the street and create one of the safest nations in the world.

Does Japanese use a CASE system? ›

Grammatical case

Grammatical cases in Japanese are marked by particles placed after the nouns. A distinctive feature of Japanese is the presence of two cases which are roughly equivalent to the nominative case in other languages: one representing the sentence topic, other representing the subject.

Is Japan legal system guilty until proven innocent? ›

Many trials do end in acquittals, though. By comparison, Japan's 99.9 percent conviction rate is unnaturally high. Prosecutors in any country generally pursue cases where they are confident of a positive outcome. However, they are still required to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

How does the Japanese culture influence the way the police work? ›

In Japan, the cultural norm on conservatism has influenced law enforcement officers and other members of the Japanese society to exhibit a strong preference for maintenance of the status quo in the resolution of disputes (Katzenstein, 1998; Parker, 1984).

What type of democratic policing does Japan have to compare to us? ›

De-militarization of Police Japan has de-militarized its police both in terms of tactics and management practices. In contrast, while American police are limited in their use of tactics, they continue to apply con- cepts and practices associated with military management.

Why does Japan have such low crime rates? ›

The cultural explanation is simplistic. Explaining low crime with culture is to say that collectivist traits like group-orientation, inclination towards harmony, and high self-control are why the Japanese do not murder, assault, and steal from each other as much as others in different countries.


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