Video Available for Asia Society Event “Guilty Until Proven Innocent”

Japan’s criminal justice system is commonly dubbed a system of “hostage justice”, and with good reason. Those arrested are often detained for long periods without bail, completely isolated from family and society, and forced into false or coerced confessions as the only means to escape detention. Underneath Japan’s incredibly high conviction rate of over 99% are tragic stories of the innocent or misunderstood: suddenly detained, psychologically tortured, and robbed of their lifestyle and dignity.  

On February 22nd, two such victims of “hostage justice” shared their harrowing stories at the Asia Society Japan Policy Salon in Tokyo. They were Junji Shimada, former director of Ohkawara Kakohki, and former English teacher Marcus Cavazos. Mr. Shimada and Mr. Cavazos were joined by Dr. Kana Sasakura (Professor of Law at Konan University) and Kanae Doi (Japan Director, Human Rights Watch), two leading experts on Japanese “hostage justice” who provided a comprehensive overview of the criminal justice system and its problematic areas. The panel discussion was moderated by Jesper Koll, chair of policy committee at Asia Society Japan. 

Asia Society Japan has released the full video of the February 22nd event, titled “Guilty Until Proven Innocent”, on their website and YouTube channel. The transcripts of the remarks delivered by Dr. Sasakura and Mr. Shimada can also be found below. 


Dr. Sasakura opened the discussion by providing a summary of the “hostage justice” system’s major tenets, as well as its implications for business in Japan and the country’s international standing. The transcript of her speech (English only) can be found below.  

The hostage justice contributes to wrongful convictions in Japan. Looking at past cases, it is clear that the major cause of wrongful convictions in Japan is false confessions. Why are there false confessions? Because the focus of investigation in Japan is to get suspects’ confessions. The Hostage Justice is used to get a confession. 

The Japanese system allows up to 23 days of pre-indictment detention for each independent charge without the possibility of bail. The suspects are detained in police cells, notably called Daiyou- Kangoku in the international human rights community. During this whole time, it is interpreted by the police and the prosecutors that detained suspects have a duty to be interrogated, meaning they cannot refuse or leave the interrogation room. Even if they remain silent, questioning does not stop. 

These interrogations happen without an attorney present and until recently there was no duty to audio or video recording of these interrogations. Recently in most serious cases recording became mandatory but these consist only 2-3 % of all criminal cases. 

During these interrogations, statement “dossiers” are produced. Dossiers are not verbatim transcripts. They are written down by interrogators and signed by the accused. They can be used as evidence at trial as one of the broad exceptions to the hearsay rule. 

During detention, a judge can impose a ban on communication between detained suspects/defendants and families, friends, etc. It is devastating enough to be arrested and detained, but you can only talk to your attorney if this ban is imposed. 

There is no bail during these 23 days of detention, and when the suspect is arrested on another “different” charge, the 23 days will be repeated. 

After the suspect is indicted 23 days later, they can apply for bail. However, if the judge thinks that there is a risk of flight or destruction of evidence, the bail may be denied. The risks are interpreted very broadly: for example, if you are from a country outside of Japan, you will have a risk of flight. If you deny the charges or remain silent, you will have the risk of destructing evidence. 

All these pressures are designed to bring the accused to their knees and obey what the police or the prosecutors tell you to do. It is as if you are being a hostage and only freed when you confess. You are giving up your liberty for not confessing. Innocent people will be detained longer because they will deny the charge. 

This situation is called Hostage Justice. No wonder most of the defendants confess, and thus false confessions became the major cause of wrongful convictions. Using these confessions, the Japanese conviction rate is a staggering 99.8 %. 

Looking at this list of cases which were exonerated in Japan through retrial, when we look at how many of these cases were with false confessions…. It is 21 cases out of 25. The evidence is clear. 

If you compare the situation in a typical felony case in the United States, the distinction becomes quite clear. Of course, the American criminal justice itself has many problems, but at least I do not think the American system is designed to elicit confessions. When you are arrested, you are given Miranda warnings. You will be taken to a judge within 48 hours and then you are eligible for bail. Interrogations don’t last for days like Japan, and if you decide to remain silent the interrogation must stop immediately. When an interrogation is conducted, our attorney can be with you. 

One case of false confession in Japan, which is well known internationally, is the case of Iwao Hakamata, a 1966 murder case and whose retrial is now in progress. This was a case of death penalty and Hakamata had been detained for 48 years, 34 of which on death row. Hakamata made a false confession because of brutal and lengthy interrogations. This case illustrates the serious consequences that the hostage justice brings. 

This case was from 1966 but in more recent cases, the situation has not changed much. 

There are many examples. Mr. Shimada and Mr. Cavazos’s cases are two of these examples. 

Another recent case is the case of Mr. Yamagishi. Mr Yamagishi is the former president of Osaka-based real estate company Pressance Corporation. Yamagishi was arrested in December 2019 on suspicion of embezzling 2.1 billion yen ($17 million) from a school operator called Meijo Gakuin in Osaka Prefecture. Investigators said Yamagishi colluded with the former chair of Meijo Gakuin to steal deposit money gained from the sale of a land plot. 

He denied the charges and was detained for 248 days. He had to resign so as not to damage his company. However, the Osaka District Court acquitted Yamagishi in October 2021. 

We all remember the Ghosn and Kelly’s cases. Ghosn was detained for 108 days, Kelly 37 days in solitary confinement and was subject to intense interrogation. Ghosn’s attorney revealed that the interrogation continued every day for an average of 7 hours per day. 

Recently, a British Court criticized the Japanese practice in the Chappell case. This case involves three British men who were detained after they flew back to Britain over their alleged involvement in a 2015 robbery of Harry Winston in Ginza, Tokyo. Whether the three will be transferred to Japan is being discussed in Britain as we speak, because Britain does not have an extradition treaty with Japan. In this case, the men’s defense attorneys has been arguing that a handover could raise human rights concerns, namely “hostage justice”. 

The Magistrate’s court ruled that it has concerns about the Japanese system which have been criticized by reports from UN an NGO bodies and rejected the extradition. 

Have there been reform efforts? Yes. We have had two major criminal justice reform in the last 20 years, but both have failed to resolve this issue. The Ministry of justice has a webpage Frequently Asked Questions on the Japanese Criminal Justice System which was written after the international outrage against hostage justice in 2020 when the world learned about the Nissan cases. It states as follows: “the Japanese criminal justice system does not force confessions by unduly holding suspects and defendants in custody. It is therefore not accurate at all to criticize the Japanese system of being a “hostage justice” system. In Japan, there are strict requirements and procedures stipulated in law with regard to holding suspects and defendants in custody, with due consideration given to the guarantee of human rights”. 

The cases I have talked about as well as Mr. Shimada and Mr. Cavazos’s cases illustrate the long-standing “hostage justice” system, in existence has adverse implications for Japanese business and tarnishes the country’s international reputation. This system may act as a deterrent for foreign business executives considering relocation to Japan, especially as many non-Japanese citizens become victims of this system. 

Everyone knows that you are innocent until proven guilty. You should be treated as an innocent person. The norm is internationally established. You have a right to remain silent. This is also internationally recognized human right. Is the practice in Japan consistent with these rules? 

Thank you for this opportunity to speak today, and with that, I conclude my speech. 


Mr. Shimada delivered a speech detailing the malicious actions of prosecutors and interrogators, the pain he endured from forced family separation, and the dehumanizing conditions of detention. His remarks (Japanese follows English) are below. 

Hello everyone, my name is Junji Shimada. Four years ago, in March 2020, I was suddenly arrested. At the time, I was a director of Ohkawara Kakohki Company, a Yokohama-based machinery maker. 

The president of the company, an advisor, and myself were arrested on suspicion of illegally exporting machinery to China. The police had deemed that our spray dryer, a machine used to turn milk into powdered milk among other things, as a “machinery that could be used to produce biological weapons.” 

The three of us accepted questionings by the police for a total of 98 times before our arrests, over a span of about a year and a half. We answered every question honestly and signed many written statements. Time and again, we would explain that the spray dryer could not be used to produce biological weapons. 

However, the police arrested us in order to force a confession, locking us in detention and isolating us from our families, colleagues, and society. The police even excluded our actual testimonies from their written records and instead fabricated statements. As I lost faith in the validity of the police investigation, I decided that I would remain silent throughout interrogations after the arrest. 

Interrogations were conducted nearly daily in a closed room and continued for 21 days. There was no audio or video recording of our interrogations. Our lawyers were of course not permitted to be present during interrogations, and we were even prohibited from taking notes. 
The police would ask us repeatedly, “You don’t have anything to say? If you’re remaining silent, does that mean you have no remorse?” Every day entailed more interrogation and pressure to confess, and I began to realize how unbearably torturous it is to remain silent. 

Our detention center was a room at the police station, where we were treated like criminals. Meals were served cold, in plastic containers that they would leave on the floor. We could only use a toilet that was in the corner of our room without privacy. Eventually, I became ill and suffered diarrhea for days. 

When we traveled outside of our cells, we were handcuffed and restrained at the waist by a leash called “koshinawa.” “Don’t make eye contact with anyone, keep your head down!” They would berate us. Frankly, we were treated like slaves. 

Of course, like everyone else, we could not email or call anyone. On top of that, the court had issued a “contact prohibition order,” meaning we could not meet or even exchange letters with anyone, including our families. The only outsider we could meet with during our detention was our lawyer. I could hardly handle the anxiety that overcame me as I wondered how my family was handling the situation. 

This new lifestyle had deprived me of physical and emotional strength; there were many days that I considered confessing, only so that I could leave the detention center more quickly. 
In Japan, it is only after a formal indictment that one can apply for bail. Hence, I asked my lawyer to request bail immediately after my indictment, which was 21 days after my arrest. However, the court denied the bail application on the grounds that I “might destroy evidence.” I realized that in Japan, bail was virtually out of our reach without a confession. 

Again and again, we would request bail, only to be slapped with more denials. Finally, after six applications and a total of 332 days in detention, we were released on bail. 

In July 2021, six months after our release, there was a dramatic turn of events. On that day, a mere four days before our first trial, the prosecutors withdrew their indictment against us. They said that it was “difficult to establish that (the exports of our spray dryer machines) violated the regulations.” In other words, there was no crime. 

Given all of this, we sued for damages, taking the Japanese and Tokyo governments to court. In its decision last year on December 27th, the Tokyo District Court declared the arrests, interrogations, and indictments illegal, awarding us damages of 160 million yen. During cross-examination, a current investigator in the Metropolitan Police Public Security Bureau, the police division that arrested us, admitted that the case was a “fabrication.” 

We were only able to remain resilient throughout the 11 months of brutal detention in the knowledge of our absolute innocence, as well as our unwavering commitment to prove our innocence in court. 

Japan’s conviction rate, however, remains extremely high at over 99%. Even for those like us who are innocent, far too many are likely to be forced into confessions as that is often the only way to free the harsh detention. 

Furthermore, we had to prepare for trial under the cruel detention and isolation from families, friends, co-workers, and society. We had cooperated closely with the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, exchanging documents and communications that detailed what kinds of machinery applied to their specific regulations. All of those files had been confiscated by the police, and it was further complicating to try to locate them for our defense as we were isolated in detention. I must emphasize that to end false convictions, it is essential that those who claim innocence can defend themselves on an even playing field with the powerful authority. 

In closing, I would like to highlight the irreversible tragedy that this “hostage justice” can breed. Mr. Shizuo Aishima, the advisor who was arrested with me, was likewise cruelly detained under totally fabricated charges. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer during his detention but was neglected of adequate medical care, and unfortunately passed away in February 2021. He applied for bail eight times, but never granted one, until his death. “Once we’re proven innocent, let’s go have a drink” – the conversation before our arrests became my last words to him, and that sadly never came true. 

Our Ohkawara Kakohki case has been reported extensively in Japanese media. However, this case has not spurred any independent inquiry or reform by the Japanese government. That would only allow false accusations and “hostage justice” to endure for future generations. 

I call for an end to the “hostage justice” system, which justifies long-term detention, family separation, and psychological torture to force confessions. I also call for a reform so that, at the very least, police and prosecutors respect the right to remain silent, lawyers are permitted to join their clients during interrogations, which should be recorded on audio and video. 

I thank you all sincerely for your time, and ask for your support in ending injustice in Japan’s legal system. 

(Japanese version below)