Japan urged to come clean on confessions

Times Staff Writer

The physical evidence that implicated former pro boxer Iwao Hakamada in the stabbing deaths of a family of four on a summer night in 1966 was hardly conclusive.

The clothes prosecutors said he had worn during the killing did not fit him.

The murder weapon Hakamada allegedly used was, according to his lawyers, too small to make the wounds. And, they said, the door police claimed Hakamada used to enter and leave the victims’ house was locked.

But prosecutors had the most important piece of evidence they needed, enough for the three judges of the Shizuoka District Court to find Hakamada guilty and sentence him to death.


Hakamada’s confession.

It did not matter that Hakamada almost immediately retracted his admission and then testified during his trial that he had been beaten and threatened during extended interrogations over 22 days in a police detention cell, with no lawyer present. His signed admission of guilt has kept him in prison ever since, through failed appeals, still awaiting an execution that could come at any time.

Now his conviction is again under scrutiny, after the only surviving judge of the three-man panel that found him guilty -- by consensus -- broke four decades of silence to say he had always believed that Hakamada’s confession was coerced. The case is seen by analysts here as a stark illustration of the Japanese legal system’s addiction to acquiring convictions by confession.

“I knew right away that something was wrong with his confession,” said the former judge, Norimichi Kumamoto, after he finally went public with his belief that he had participated in sentencing an innocent man to die.

Kumamoto, 70, quit the bench six months after the 1968 trial, and says he has carried “hurt in his heart” over his role in sending Hakamada to death row.

“I have always regretted that I couldn’t persuade the chief judge” to acquit, he says. “He was older than me, and I thought that because he had experienced the war when freedoms were taken away or oppressed, that he would understand what had happened to Hakamada.

“But judges in Japan tended to be influenced by the media and social pressures, and the media were being very aggressive, describing [the accused] as an evil figure,” Kumamoto recalls. “And Japanese tend to believe that the prosecutors’ office, as an arm of the government, wouldn’t do anything intentionally wrong.”


Japanese courts deliberate in secret and verdicts are issued under all three names. (Japan does not have a jury system but plans to introduce a hybrid form of judges and juries in 2009.) Kumamoto kept his doubts about the boxer’s conviction to himself, maintaining silence even as Hakamada’s confession was cited as the reason for turning down his appeals and a bid for retrial.

When the ex-judge finally went public in March at a news conference in Tokyo, much of the subsequent media coverage attacked him for flouting a law prohibiting judges from disclosing deliberations.

Some, however, did welcome Kumamoto’s blistering indictment of the system’s reliance on confessions to maintain a conviction rate that exceeds 99% in criminal trials. Unlike American law, which gives suspects the right to have a lawyer present during questioning, Japan allows police to interrogate people without a lawyer for as many as 23 days before pressing charges or releasing them. They can then be rearrested, beginning another 23-day session.

‘Substitute prisons’

The suspects are kept in small holding cells known as daiyo kangoku, or “substitute prisons,” a setting that critics say allows police to coerce confessions to crimes they did not commit. The Japan Federation of Bar Assns. recently joined human rights groups in contending that holding suspects in such cramped conditions, with little or no contact with the outside world, “is a breeding ground of confession coercion and false accusations.”

“This type of interrogation causes heavy mental suffering to suspects and can be considered torture,” the lawyers group said.

Some judges have shown an increased willingness to question the methods used to acquire confessions. In February, a judge in western Japan reprimanded police and prosecutors for their handling of a case in which 12 defendants were eventually found not guilty of using beer and cash to buy votes in a local election.


Six of the suspects had confessed, but the judge ruled that they probably did so “to please the investigators, as they desperately wanted to be released.”

Police had arrested, released and rearrested some of the suspects -- one defendant was held for a total of 395 days -- and some said they had been told that unless they confessed, their children would be fired from their jobs. The bullying was so bad that one defendant tried to drown himself, but was rescued.

In two other high-profile cases this year, murder and rape convictions were overturned that had been based solely on confessions extracted under intense pressure.

In 2005, the government made slight modifications to the daiyo kangoku system, allowing video cameras to record questioning in select cases.

But the bar associations say the location of the interview is itself the problem: a holding cell where a suspect can be questioned at any time, for any length of time, without food, breaks or a lawyer.

“Even strong people can confess under those circumstances,” says Katsuhiko Nishijima, a Tokyo human rights lawyer who is at the forefront of the legal campaign to get Hakamada’s conviction overturned.

The greatest resistance to introducing new guidelines comes from the police, Nishijima said. “The police argue that videotaping interviews and allowing lawyers would destroy the necessary trust between police and the suspect,” he said.


Many here say the dependence on confessions is a cultural phenomenon in a country where even the best TV detectives are the ones who pull an admission from the crook in a dramatic interrogation scene rather than uncover evidence.

“The general public has trust in this confession system,” Nishijima says. “It’s in the Japanese DNA: There’s a belief that if you commit a crime, you should come clean and confess. When someone is arrested, the newspapers report that ‘police are now aggressively interrogating the suspect.’ And if he doesn’t confess, then the public are unhappy. ‘Ah, he’s still denying it,’ they say.”

That’s why the recent criminal trial of fallen Internet mogul Takafumi Horie for financial malfeasance was seen here as so extraordinary: The young businessman refused to confess during his incarceration. Other top executives at his firm quickly admitted guilt to investigators and agreed to testify against their boss. But Horie held out and, at his trial, made a rare not-guilty plea. He was convicted anyway.

Maintaining innocence

Since recanting his initial confession, Hakamada, too, has always denied any guilt. His lawyers say the onetime contender for Japan’s flyweight crown now refuses to see either family or his lawyers, his mental condition having deteriorated over 28 years in solitary confinement on death row. In Japan, death row inmates are not told when their sentences will be carried out and some have awaited execution for decades. The 99 inmates currently awaiting hanging live with the knowledge that their death will come with as little as a few minutes’ warning.

Working on Hakamada’s behalf, a team of lawyers and activists, which includes 12 former Japanese boxing champions, announced this week that they would petition the Supreme Court for a retrial. They are optimistic that the late-in-life admission by the judge who helped send him away can still free Hakamada, who is 71.

The former judge himself, aging and becoming weaker, says he is trying to right a wrong before it’s too late for both of them. Kumamoto saw himself as a rising star in the judiciary in the mid-1960s, working his way up the case ladder in Tokyo District Court. He had no compunctions about capital punishment, having presided over five death penalty convictions before Hakamada’s trial.


When he arrived in Shizuoka prefecture to hear the boxer’s trial, the media were clamoring for a conviction. But Kumamoto had also schooled himself in American case law, using Time magazine as a reference for U.S. Supreme Court cases of interest. He was particularly impressed by the Warren court of the 1950s and ‘60s, lauding it for “its professionalism and its commitment to the rights of the accused.”

Listening to the evidence, Kumamoto says, he believed the boxer was innocent of the murder charges. Hakamada described in court how police pulled his hair and slapped him during interrogations that lasted more than 12 hours a day, and how he was forced to use a portable toilet in the room. He testified that police threatened to bring his mother and brothers in for questioning as well unless he confessed.

By the morning of the 21st day, he said, he was dizzy, feverish and wanted only to rest. Begging for a break, he offered to confess “in the afternoon” if they would just allow him to rest. Instead, the officers came back into the room with a document labeled “Confession” and berated him into signing. He told the court the document was never read to him.

“I wanted a silence and had a headache so just wrote down my name and put my head down on the table,” he testified. “They held my hand and took my fingerprint.”

‘Media pressure’

Although the interrogators testified that they did not use force to get the confession, Kumamoto says he was convinced at the time that it was unreliable. The retired judge says he had even drafted a thick “not guilty” ruling to be read in court when the other two judges insisted on a conviction and ordered him to rewrite the ruling.

“It was half because of the confession, half because of the media pressure,” Kumamoto explains.


He still can’t get Hakamada out of his mind. The images come to him in the late afternoons, he says: the way Hakamada confidently met the judges’ eyes when they entered the courtroom, convinced he was about to be set free. The way his body slumped and his head fell forward at the guilty verdict.

“I couldn’t hear the words that I had written being read out in court,” Kumamoto recalls, tears in his eyes. “I almost lost my mind.”

Kumamoto said he always hoped that a higher court would overturn the verdict. He never considered going public until now. Not after he left the judiciary when a senior judge suggested to him that such a liberal thinker would be happier and more productive as a lawyer or academic. Not during Hakamada’s appeals and pleas for retrials.

“There was no right time until now,” Kumamoto says, refusing to elaborate.

But he’s ready to meet Hakamada to apologize. “And I’ll stand as a witness for him in the Supreme Court, if this is possible,” he says.

“It’s getting late. It’s the last chance.”

Hisako Ueno of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.