Japan is willing to reform its much-criticised criminal justice system, the country’s justice minister said, even as she dismissed complaints from former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn as distraction tactics from a self-confessed bail jumper.
After a period of unprecedented foreign scrutiny following Mr Ghosn’s arrest on charges of financial misconduct, Masako Mori told the Financial Times that no country’s justice system was without fault.
In a rare interview with a part of the Japanese government that seldom sees any need to justify itself to foreigners, Ms Mori said Mr Ghosn was spreading misinformation about Japan’s legal system in an effort to court public sympathy and distract from the charges against him — which he has denied. She made clear that Japan would only change on its own terms and not if it threatens the country’s low crime rate.
“Our criminal justice system is suitably designed and suitably operated. But like any other country, it is not 100 per cent perfect and without fault,” said Ms Mori. “I truly want you to trust me when I say that if there are faults we will fix them, openly and above board.”
Mr Ghosn’s arrest in November 2018 and subsequent detention for 130 days, when he was subject to long interrogations with no lawyer present, shocked an international audience unfamiliar with Japan’s justice system. Since his audacious escape to Lebanon last month, Mr Ghosn has accused Japan of “naked bias” and contempt for the presumption of innocence.
Hitting back, Ms Mori said Mr Ghosn’s “unjustifiable” flight would be a criminal act under the laws of any country and expressed concern that his attacks could undermine Japan’s reputation as a place to do business. “He is disseminating a lot of incorrect information but because he is such a famous figure, his global influence is immeasurable. That is why I need to rebut him,” she said.
Ms Mori, 55, is regarded as a rising star of Japanese politics. Unlike the many Japanese politicians who inherited a parliamentary seat from their father, she grew up in poverty: her father lost all his money and the family were harassed by debt collectors before a lawyer helped them when she was 12.
That experience prompted Ms Mori to become an attorney herself. As a young mother, she studied in the US, before returning to Japan and helping rewrite the country’s law on debt collection. First elected in 2007, she made an unexpected leap to the justice ministry in October when the incumbent was forced to resign.
In that role she must wrestle with the fallout from Mr Ghosn’s escape as well as issuing orders for executions when Japan carries out the death penalty. One of only three women in the cabinet, prime minister Shinzo Abe has described her as an “extremely strong” candidate to be a future leader of Japan.
Ms Mori declined to name any specific fault with Japan’s system but said there had been constant reforms, including the videotaping of interrogations since 2016, and promised to address any problem identified by the country’s legal community in an ongoing review.
Mr Ghosn has pointed to Japan’s extremely high conviction rate of more than 99 per cent after indictment as evidence that defendants do not enjoy a presumption of innocence. Ms Mori said that reflects Japan’s unique system, which requires a judicial warrant for arrest and only indicts 37 per cent of those arrested.
“When I was a lawyer for victims there were cases when a suspect, a likely criminal, was not charged,” she said. “The prosecutors only bring charges when there is extremely strong evidence of guilt.”
She insisted such a system does not amount to prosecutors, rather than courts, deciding who is guilty. “There are innocent verdicts,” she said. “[As a lawyer] I personally secured an innocent verdict for a foreign defendant.”
The ability of prosecutors to hold suspects for weeks without charge, conducting interrogations with no lawyer present, has also been criticised by Japanese lawyers as inhumane and likely to produce false confessions.
Nobuo Gohara, a former prosecutor-turned-lawyer, said: “There is too much power concentrated in the prosecutors. Unless Japan reviews its system in the wake of this Ghosn case, the country’s justice system will not be trusted by the international community.”
Ms Mori said it was part of an overall balance. “Apart from interrogation, the prosecutors do not have many other investigative powers,” she said. Police in countries such as the US and UK can go undercover, use wiretaps, take DNA samples from suspects or rely on widespread surveillance cameras. “Japan does not have any of those so interrogation is extremely valuable.”
Japan is proud of its low crime rate, which Ms Mori said was a testament to the effectiveness of its police and justice system. “If we were arresting lots of people who had not committed any crime and convicting them, then those figures would be much higher,” she said. “But we are not.”
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