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Sunday, Sept. 26, 2010

Caught in the jaws of Japan's justice system

WHERE IS THE JUSTICE? Media Attacks, Prosecutorial Abuse, and My 13 Years in Japanese Court, by Hiromasa Ezoe. Kodansha International, 2010, 339 pp., ¥2,600. (Hardcover)

The Recruit scandal dominated the media in the late 1980s and has become a notorious symbol of money politics in Japan. The image of "government for sale" undermined public faith in politicians while raising questions about values in a society uncomfortable with the unbridled materialism associated with the Bubble era.

In the frothy economy of the day, speculators were amassing fortunes in stocks and land. Just as Takafumi Horie became the target for prosecutors in 2006, Hiromasa Ezoe contends that he was subject to a media-driven, judicial mugging.

A who's who of Japanese politics were tarnished by allegations of influence peddling as the frenzied media witch hunt targeted everyone across the political spectrum who had received pre-flotation shares of Recruit Cosmos, a real estate affiliate. At the time, obtaining pre-flotation shares virtually guaranteed enormous profits because initial public offerings in Japan's surging stock market were gobbled up at significant premiums over what the original investor paid.

By some estimates, the average profit of the elite lucky enough to get some shares was about ¥66 million each. Ezoe points out that shares can rise or fall, and indeed the market began to crater in 1990, but by that time, most had already cashed out. They quickly sold off their shares because First Finance, a lending affiliate of Recruit, had fronted the money for the favored "investors."

Whatever you might think about Ezoe's culpability, "Where is the Justice?" is a nightmarish tale about life inside the maws of Japan's judicial system. Isolated and badgered, Ezoe grew depressed during the 113 days of his detention. The daily verbal harassment wore him down while the prosecutors threatened they would arrest his friends and colleagues if he did not sign their statements. They also told him that release on bail depended on his cooperation, meaning they would find a way to keep him locked up until he relented. Ezoe contends that this relentless coercion led him to sign false statements implicating others at the behest of the prosecutors.

In court, the prosecutors disputed Ezoe's allegations, but his version of events draws on a daily diary he kept while in detention, providing grist for his detailed rebuttal. Ezoe's depiction of interrogation techniques rings true because similar allegations have been made in numerous other cases where suspects have been railroaded.

In recent years several convictions have been overturned because the prosecution invented, misinterpreted or ignored exonerating evidence all in the quest to maintain the dubious distinction of a 99 percent conviction rate. This high conviction rate raises legitimate concerns that defendants are not getting fair trials.

As a result of his experience, Ezoe has become an advocate of videotaping all interrogations. This would reduce the possibility of the prosecution relying on statements signed under duress. Last year the Democratic Party of Japan promised to introduce audiovisual recording of the entire interrogation process, but has not yet acted.

Ezoe draws our attention to media influence over prosecutions asserting that the excessive Recruit coverage was misleading, jumping to conclusions based on faulty assumptions. The media- induced public hysteria pressured the prosecutors into pursuing the case as journalists dictated. In numerous discussions with his inquisitors, Ezoe learned how they were in thrall to the media's witch hunt and even admitted that they relied on the media's superior investigative resources to keep abreast of an investigation they were ostensibly leading.

Ezoe does regret that he created problems for those he was trying to help, but maintains that he was not seeking favors or bribing people. His intention was to cultivate a network of powerful people, and help people he admired, but this is neither unusual nor illegal. In many cases where it is alleged he was buying influence, Ezoe argues convincingly that the government policy changes he was supposed to be seeking actually ran counter to Recruit's business interests so it made no sense for him to intervene as prosecutors alleged.

Ezoe inadvertently became a poster boy for the late 1980s Bubble and the excessive materialism it represented. In this scenario, he was served up as the scapegoat, an outsider trying to become an insider through excessive largess. He may have acted within the letter of the law, but making an example of him sent a message.

Ezoe thinks it is because Japan remains a Confucian society. He writes: "Moral evil is a moral hazard separate from wrongdoing in the legal sense. Legal wrongdoing is a transgression against the very minimum of social norms. The media reports do not differentiate between moral wrong and legal wrongdoing. Special investigators build a case on what the media choose to report in the most sensational way. This, I think, is why public prosecutors also confuse moral wrong and legal wrongdoing."

After an expensive and draining 13-year ordeal in the courts, Ezoe was found guilty and given a suspended sentence. This fascinating book suggests that both the media and the prosecutors also have much to answer for.

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