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Ending Japan’s ‘Hostage Justice’ System

Government Needs to Act Against Abuses in Pretrial Detention

Photo taken at the “End ‘Hostage Justice’ in Japan Project” launch event in Osaka, Japan on June 30, 2023, organized by Human Rights Watch and Innocence Project Japan. © 2023 Kanae Doi/Human Rights Watch

Today, Human Rights Watch and Innocence Project Japan, a Japanese nongovernmental group, launched a joint project to end the practice of “hostage justice” in Japan. The project will advocate with policymakers for legal reform and inform public opinion through events and discussions.

In Japan, criminal suspects face severe abuses in pretrial detention. Authorities routinely strip them of their right to remain silent, interrogate them without a lawyer, coerce them to confess to crimes through repeated arrests, and deny them bail – resulting in detention for prolonged periods under constant surveillance in police stations. More than 99 percent of trials result in convictions.

Shinobu Yamagishi, the founder and former President of Pressance Corporation Co., a major Japanese real estate company, is among the few that have been acquitted.

Yamagishi was arrested in December 2019 and prosecuted for corporate embezzlement. Japanese law allows for the detention of suspects for up to 23 days before indictment. Detainees are not allowed to request bail for the period and are subjected to interrogation throughout. While Yamagishi maintained his innocence, his staff and business partner in custody did not. After days of intimidation, threats, and verbal abuse by prosecutors, the prosecutors eventually made them sign “confessional” statements saying Yamagishi was involved in the corporate embezzlement.

After indictment, Yamagishi applied for bail, but his application was rejected six times. Courts routinely deny bail during trial for those who do not confess. “It was a very hard 248 days mentally, thinking that the only way to get out of here was to make a false confession,” Yamagishi told us. It took him two years to clear his name, and in the process he lost his company.

The abusive practices of Japan’s “hostage justice” system have resulted in thousands of lives and families being torn apart every year, as well as wrongful convictions. The Japanese government urgently needs to undertake wide-ranging reforms so that detainees’ rights to a fair trial are ensured, and to make investigators and prosecutors more accountable for their actions.

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