The Skeleton in the Closet

The Japanese police have a long memory. Take a look at the wanted posters in your local kōban and you are face-to-face with a gallery of skewered, ugly faces, almost always male, punctuated by the occasional piece of paper shoddily pasted over one with text thanking the public for their “co-operation” in apprehending the thug.

It is the public who catch criminals in this nation where the police invariably spend more time checking if bikes are stolen than getting their hands dirty with the endemic mafia. In central Shibuya there is a “soapland” de facto brothel literally right in front of a kōban. (The sex services are ostensibly non-penetrative, so they are ignored.) Another large police box sits at the top of Dōgenzaka, the hill in Shibuya up which Chinese prostitutes every night will stand and offer “massages” to passing men. The police do not bother to deal with these misdemeanours.

Their targets are wilder affairs. They include a man called Masaaki Ōsaka, who was part of the “Shibuya Riot Incident” in November 1971, where people threw Molotov cocktails at police in protest at the terms of the restoration of Okinawa and Japan’s collusion with America in the Vietnam War, killing a young police officer. Ōsaka is said still to be shielded by members of Chūkaku-ha, the radical New Left umbrella organization. The posters draw attention to his defining facial features and include the faintly chilling warning: “Be sure to stay alert!” Big Brother is watching you and all that.

masaaki osaka

The problem is that even if he is ever caught, how do you claim it was he alone who was responsible for the death? This was an age ago, long before CCTV. The same issue affected the dozens arrested after the deaths of three riot police officers during the height of the Sanrizuka crisis in 1971 over the construction of Narita International Airport. The arrested were never convicted since their guilt could not be proved. In a crowd, how can you prove who hit whom aside from taking one person’s word against another? But when threatened, the state begins to behave irrationally. It makes quick, mass arrests to find scapegoats, to make examples of some and bring closure to an incident.

The police in Japan have a poor record when it comes to radicalism. After accusations of brutality during the Anpo crisis in 1960 and the protests in 1968 at Sasebo over the docking of a nuclear submarine, both of which respectively left a demonstrator dead, the police switched tactics to caution. The special kidōtai, the elite riot police unit that was built up during the Sixties and Seventies in response to the threat of New Left extremism, did not carry guns — if one is going to engage a radical in hand-to-hand combat, why give him or her a potential weapon to steal? It focussed its energies on containing rioters, rather than battling them. This is one reason why in spite of the incredible spectacle of the University of Tokyo Yasuda Hall siege in January 1969 and the televised sensationalism of the Asama-sansō lodge siege in 1972, the real casualties were on the police and civilian side.

This is often seen as commendable compared to trigger-happy law enforcement in other nations, though when confronted by a serious armed threat, the Japanese police have a habit of bodging things. They are very good at containing and at pre-emptive strikes — such as the famous dragnet that arrested much of the Sekigun-ha (Red Army Faction) in Yamanashi before it was about to carry out a major incident — but can totally miss other ones (the unfazed Sekigun-ha then went on to perform Japan’s first ever airplane hijacking) or respond ineptly to real assaults, such as the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum millennial cult which had already been foreshadowed in an earlier sarin incident in Matsumoto the previous year. (Not only did they screw up the initial Matsumoto and Tokyo investigations, the farce that ensued when a Aum fugitive tried to give himself up in 2012 and incredibly was not accepted was well reported around the globe.)

Where the Japanese police excels, it is in creating a system whereby the public police themselves. For a nation that is so often praised for its low crime rates and superb “community” police box network, the truth is that the numbers of police are disproportionately high compared to other countries. In Britain, where I come from, I have only seen as many police patrolling the streets in Westminster or such places. But even a simple trip around a local area in Tokyo and you can encounter police and police boxes on any major street.

Britain is frequently criticized — rightly so — for its surveillance society, a legacy of the ring of steel London instituted during the IRA mainland bombing campaign and then stepped up in the wake of 9/11. London is a fortress of chicanes, thousands upon thousands of cameras trained on the streets, watching cars and civilians for signs of a terrorist threat. No doubt the system has saved lives but at what cost? Yet other than major government districts, it is rare to see large numbers of officers on the pavements of the city itself. And let us recall, unlike the humble British plod, those friendly cops in Japan all have guns.

Japan’s police do not resort to cameras. They use spies. The police make daily neighbourhood calls, not only reinforcing notions that the kōban is a listening post for citizens to pop in and chat about local matters, but also somewhere you should go to report on anything unusual — in particular, suspicious persons spotted in the area. It is such reports that resulted in the recent apprehension of the final Aum fugitives — where the incompetency of the police was widely derided — and even Public Enemy Number One, Fusako Shigenobu, in 2000, where the authorities had no idea she was even back in the country she abandoned to take her causes to the Middle East in the early Seventies.

fusako shigenobu

A humiliated beast will take its revenge. Despite her notoriety, there is very little that can be proven against Shigenobu, but that did not stop the prosecution attempting to pin the attack on the 1974 French embassy in the Hague on her. In one amusing twist, even Carlos the Jackal apparently protested that she was innocent of organizing the incident. But there was no way that the authorities would be satisfied with just a conviction for mere passport violations when she had made a mockery of the country and its international standing for so many years.

Injustice is a common thread when the radicals meet their inevitable ends behind bars. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front almost certainly did not intend to kill when they blew up the headquarters to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in 1974. The deaths that resulted were the result of their naiveté in believing a warning phone call of a few minutes’ notice would be enough. But they had to be punished and death sentences were handed down (though the executions never carried out). The prosecution is vindictive, even to the point of unlawfully detaining suspected associates, such as what happened with Mariko Arai, arrested and held as a conspirator in the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front but her connection never proven.

That “front”, a loose series of three cells, also completely evaded police detection, carrying out an extended bombing campaign of Japanese corporations, and at one point attempting to assassinate the Emperor by attacking his train as it passed (they aborted at the last moment for practical reasons). It was eventually discovered with the help of citizen tips and the police swooped, arresting all the main members simultaneously. However, some escaped and one, Satoshi Kirishima, is still on the run today. (You can spot his wanted poster in some kōban.) The ones who were arrested had been living double lives as ordinary, working citizens while hoarding a cache of bombs underneath a flat. They were true urban guerillas.

satoshi kirishima

The Japanese justice system can often surprise outsiders. The country still retains the death penalty and only in recent years introduced jury trials. Cameras are not allowed into courtrooms, which is hardly unusual itself — except that they do allow the media to record a kind of “establishing shot” whereby the news cameras can record a slow pan of the judges and other court staff, which is then used as footage for the TV report’s voice-over. It is very theatrical, very staged and very odd.

Once arrested, you disappear. The police can hold you for twenty-three days without a lawyer or contact with your family. Detentions are said to be relatively easy to have extended. Though many lapse lyrical about Japan’s crime-free utopia, as far as experts are concerned, rather than praise, the prosecution’s high conviction rate has been the subject of much international condemnation in that it seems to imply police wear suspects down to extract a confession and admission of guilt.

In the face of such oppression, what can you do? Say nothing. Kanmoku (“complete silence”) was the favored strategy for students and radicals after they were arrested. To speak was to recognise the authority and legitimacy of those questioning you. To say nothing was not only safer for you in the long run, it was a means of protest. Many famous arrested activists kept this up for lengthy periods of time, only breaking silence when a new development — a death or further arrest — meant a level of co-operation was more logical. Some were then criticized by peers for the breach of this unwritten etiquette in the radical rulebook. (This harks back to the phenomenon of tenko or recanting, where the Japanese Communists in the pre-war period were broken during their retention. Famously many then committed apostasy to the Right and nationalism, starting a seemingly “Japanese” tradition for leftists being plastic with their ideologies.)

Many did not quit, though, and kept up their silence until released with or without being charged. Some remain behind bars. One such example is Fumiaki Hoshino, who has been imprisoned for thirty-nine years in connection with the Shibuya Riot Incident. His arrest occurred some years after the protest and, of course, there is the intrinsic issue of how realistic it is to pick out one “perpetrator” from a mass of hundreds as the “killer” of a police officer.

fumiaki hoshino

His supporters have been indefatigable in their campaigning to win him a retrial on the basis that the evidence against him is non-existent, with eye witness accounts highly questionable. They say he is a political prisoner, denied proper visitation rights and harshly disciplined for the smallest of misdemeanours. Solitary marches and protests are regularly held in Tokushima — where Hoshino languishes in prison — and in Tokyo.

This is the rather unpleasant skeleton in the closet that the police would rather keep hidden. A bygone era of intensive, frequent protest in which mistakes were made on both sides. Scapegoats and quick fixes were found, and then people were quick to move on. Injustices and false convictions happen in every justice system in the world. However, the Japanese state has a lot to lose and will only backtrack and grant retrials through firmly gritted teeth. It took mild-mannered bus driver Toshikazu Sugaya over seventeen years to win his freedom in the Ashikaga murder case of 1990. Years of campaigning to get DNA evidence re-examined were only begrudgingly acknowledged, since the prosecutors knew that then the truth might come out — that Sugaya’s “confession” had been bullied out of him. He had been an easy target: divorced and a bit of a loner. Hours of interrogation and physical abuse, and the police had their confession. It was not until 2010 that the flawed DNA evidence was accepted as proof of innocence, in spite of the fact that Sugaya’s stories of his apparent multiple crimes — made, he said, in order to assuage the duress from the police — did not concur with the witness accounts, and that he had failed to identify the sites where other purported murder victims’ bodies had been found.

Although there have been some vocal scandals recently and a few very belated victories such as the Sugaya case, the situation remains essentially unchanged. For one, Hōsei University, long a site for radical student activism in Japan, has recently been suffering under the fist of the police, who would arrive and pick out the activists they had already pre-planned to arrest. Campaigners say that over 100 have been unlawfully arrested in the last few years.

In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In the country of no crime, the police and judiciary rule supreme.


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