Journalist Paul Murphy spent a lot of time in Japanese courtrooms, as—one hastens to add—observer rather than defendant. These stories, vignettes really, are drawn from the 119 cases he followed in Matsumoto, a town of a quarter-million about 200km west of Tokyo.
The cases are in some ways banal—petty shoplifting, drug offenses, pimping, arson, a murder or two—but Murphy uses them to tell a story about Japan.
One of the book’s themes is Japan’s very high conviction rate, over 99% in the lower summary and district courts. Confessions and guilty pleas are very common. The most a defense attorney can usually hope for is a diminution of the sentence.
There may be—and probably is—something cultural in this, but Murphy also argues that it is structural: prosecutors only go to trial when the case is open and shut. (Murphy adds the caveat in an explanatory final chapter that the open and shut nature of case is not always arrived at honestly.) This is correlated, he says, with relatively light and often suspended sentences for first and especially young offenders, giving them a second chance, as it were. The support (or lack thereof) of family and friends is taken into account.
Murphy sees much to admire in this system—but it should be noted that not all observers have been quite so sanguine.
But is really the stories themselves that make the book. Murphy is a fine, clear writer with a good eye for the telling anecdote. His characters are as well-delineated as they are chosen, his descriptions are spare, the protagonists are allowed to speak in their own voices.
The cases range from a crippled man beating his elderly mother to death to a mobster who blames policed-induced stress for his drug taking; a trivial amount of marijuana sends a middle-class office worker to jail. An extraordinarily high percentage of Japanese convicts are elderly, often perpetrators of minor thefts for which, if the stories here are any indication, there was equally often no need. These appear to be the result of social alienation more than criminal intent.
Some cases are bizarre: the husband and wife couple who, upon loss of their house, burn it down and plan to drive off a cliff with their 20-something daughter.
There is, it must be said, something of the voyeur in these accounts: courts seem to lay people bare and if Murphy’s accounts are anything to go by, Japan is no exception. But Murphy treats his subjects with compassion and empathy while maintaining a journalistic gimlet eye.
The result is a feeling that Japan, as seen through these courts cases, is different from other places, at least the US, Britain and Murphy’s own Ireland. That may indeed be true, but Murphy has of course cherry-picked the cases that make the best stories. It seems somewhat unsafe to extrapolate from these vignettes to a general understanding about Japan.
Murphy has an admirable desire to educate: the stories are interspersed with discussions about broader Japanese social themes, including a fascinating discussion of life in Japanese prisons. These excursions into pedagogy are natural for the most part, but can on occasion can feel dutiful and an impediment to the narrative.
True Crime Japan will no doubt appeal to those with a penchant for things Japanese. However, for those who believe that justice is or should be universal in application, Murphy also describes an indication of a possible different path.