Murphy’s Law: An Interview with True Crime Japan author Paul Murphy

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Paul Murphy finds major truths about Japan from a minor court.

Paul Murphy is an award-winning journalist whose reports about Japan have appeared in the Japan Times, International Herald Tribune/Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Daily News, Irish Times and on RTÉ’s Prime Time TV programme. He is currently a reporter for the RTÉ Investigations Unit in Dublin but kindly spent time this month answering my emailed questions about True Crime Japan, his excellent first book.

Patrick Sherriff: How did you come to spend a year covering Matsumoto District Court? That’s not the usual beat foreign reporters in Japan find themselves on.

Paul Muphy: That’s right, I was often the only reporter in the courtroom and always the only foreign journalist. The idea for the book came from a visit to Matsumoto City’s court building in June 2013. At the time I was on a two-year career break from my job as a television reporter in Ireland and was working in Matsumoto as a freelance journalist. I had lots of spare time and out of curiosity went along to the Summary Court, which deals with very minor cases, mostly petty theft (the District Court deals with minor and major offences; from theft up to murder).

The first case was that of a middle-aged man who was being prosecuted for stealing a CD player and a bicycle. The crime was unremarkable but I found the entire process fascinating for lots of reasons. The level of remorse shown by the defendant was extraordinary, even by the standards, I thought, of a society which is pretty apologetic in general. Secondly, there was no attempt to paint the defendant in a good light. In Irish courtrooms, which I am most familiar with, the defence lawyer is expected to highlight something attractive about the defendant or at least something in his background that would excuse or mitigate the crime, but in this Japanese court the tone of the lawyer towards his client was critical and bordered on belligerent. The level of criticism was ratcheted up further by the defendant’s mother, who spoke intensely about the “shame” that her son had brought to the family and how he was not just a repeat criminal but was also a layabout. To drive home the dismal picture, she also highlighted that he was “useless” around the house and “unable” to cook. As I watched other cases unfold over following months, the scenario of the defendant being chastised from all sides of the courtroom became familiar –– judges are often the mostly kindly toward defendants as prosecutors, defence lawyers and witnesses frequently talk down to them and sometimes heavily lambaste them.

Having a parent (typically a mother) speak disdainfully about the wayward son may help to reassure the judge or judges that the family accepts the gravity of the defendant’s crime. Indeed, mothers on the witness stand often blame themselves for their son’s crime, (while men rarely do). But the main reason they make an appearance is to show that regardless of the defendant’s actions the family bond is strong and the defendant will be, if not welcomed, at least allowed back into the family home once he is released from detention. (The great majority of defendants in criminal cases are kept in detention – usually for two or three months until their trial.)

It also became clear that the role of the lawyer is different than in the West. With judges in Japan issuing not guilty verdicts in only around one in 700 cases, the defendant has little hope of winning a not-guilty verdict. In general, prosecutors will not bring a case if the evidence is doubtful. So for defendants, pleading guilty, confessing and emphasising remorse in a letter of apology to the victim as well as a letter of reflection to the court are not just culturally expected but also an intelligent defence strategy. Lawyers told me that as a general rule of thumb, insufficient remorse will add 15% to any prison sentence.

So the courtroom behaviour and overall atmosphere was interesting, but the most fascinating feature of the CD-player-and-bicycle-thief case was how much I learned about the defendant and his life in a very short space of time. Though I had lived in Japan for eight years from 1995 to 2003, mostly working as a copyeditor and later journalist, I always found it difficult to get a handle on society. Within the half hour or so that Mr Aiba and his mother were questioned, I learned about the strictness of the Japanese welfare system (Mr Aiba had no money and couldn’t get welfare because he lived with his mother. Before his crime he had gone to the city hall to get a handout of 500 yen, which he used to buy noodles at a convenience store.) I also learned about his home life, relations with his family, his work history and his battle with mental illness. It seemed that the courtroom could provide a window into a society that I had always found somewhat opaque.

It also became clear that defendants and their lawyers believe that one of the best ways for a defendant to show remorse is to answer questions under cross examination as clearly and honestly as possible. Not only are courtroom answers unusually direct, so too are the questions. Because the hearings are of finite duration and rarely overrun — usually an hour is allotted even for minor crimes – there is no time for the ambiguity and beating around the bush that the Japanese language is famous for. Because each defendant is cross-examined by his defence lawyer and the prosecutor (though on rare occasions the defence lawyer does such a thorough job that the prosecutor is left with no questions to ask) and often by the judge, time is of the essence. Unlike in wider Japanese society there is little courtroom tolerance for equivocation. This makes for some very revealing exchanges.

The details that you were able to bring out about each individual case were at times stunning. Which case that you covered that year stands out most to you?

Most of the personal details about the defendants emerged during the trials, mainly from the cross examinations of defendants or their family members. Others came from subsequent conversations outside the court with friends, relatives and neighbours of the defendants, lawyers and, where possible, the defendants themselves.

For me, the most fascinating case was that of Mr and Mrs Hara who intended to burn down their house and kill themselves and their daughter by driving off a cliff. I found it especially interesting because the family seemed ordinary in most ways. Their house had been repossessed and sold at auction because they had stopped paying the mortgage five years earlier. Their solution to this not-exactly-unique conundrum was to burn down the house and kill themselves and their daughter without ever informing the daughter of their decision. They couldn’t stand the shame of losing a house that they were clearly obsessed with. Part of their attachment to the house was because they built it with specially selected natural housing materials. The mother and daughter suffered from multiple chemical sensitivity so they were highly allergic to various chemicals — most shampoos for example would make their skin blotchy. Regular paint was not used in building the house, neither was regular plaster or wood that had been treated with chemicals such as plywood. For the mother, part of the attachment was that when her own father visited the house he told her she had “done well” with the design. She said it was the first and only time he had praised her. She cried in the retelling in court.

Both parents, who were charged with attempted arson of an inhabited building (the family suicide plan was botched) told the court that they saw no other choice. But they could have simply vacated the house which had become a financial millstone, and moved across the field where Mrs Hara’s original family home lay vacant. If they had done this, however, their neighbours would find out that they hadn’t paid their housing loan. To Mr and Mrs Hara death was preferable to the neighbours finding out about their financial dishonour. Even if it meant the death too of their unwitting daughter. If ever there was a family oppressed by the weight of cultural expectation — in this case the expectation that people pay their debt — it was the Hara family.

So much of writing about Japan focusses on the weird, and there were some weird cases here to the Western eye to be sure, but you paint a sympathetic picture of all of the defendants and their families. What can we learn about Japan by studying its criminals?

There were times when I was dumbfounded by what I saw in the courtroom, some of it comical, some farcical and some amazing. But I tried to avoid writing a book that focused inordinately on the “weird” aspects of Japanese society. I tried to pick the cases that were most interesting and reflective of Japanese society, rather than choosing bizarre cases just for titillation. There is however a chapter in the book on perverted crimes because about one in 12 cases had some element of perversion –– molestation, upskirting, groping, child pornography, filming of women defecating. But most of the cases I saw and most of the ones I feature involved ordinary people who made mistakes rather than career criminals.

There were plenty of weird moments though. One was when a mother beseeched the court to jail her eldest son for life and then declared that she wanted him to “die in prison.” Another was when a lawyer for a senior member of a yakuza (mafia) gang based in nearby Suwa City presented into evidence a zetsuenjo, a letter formally declaring the defendant was no longer a member of the Fujii-gumi gang. The letter, stamped and signed by the Fujii-gumi boss, was solemnly accepted into evidence by the judge in the trial of Takashi Kakefuji, a former General Secretary of the gang who was before the court on a drugs offense. And nobody batted an eyelid! I just couldn’t imagine a similar declaration from a gang chief anywhere else in the world being accepted by a court with such seriousness.

I am not sure how much we can learn from the criminals, but we can learn a lot from Japan’s criminal justice system, which, despite the image fostered by its amazingly high conviction rate, is broadly benevolent (though its prisons are punitive) and effective (aside from the widespread problem of groping, Japan, as you know, is an unusually safe country.) In any country a visit to the courts is educational. For me, the Matsumoto courts were instructive because they provided a relatively unfiltered view into ordinary people’s lives in Japan that is not readily available in the media or elsewhere. I learned much, for example, about life on social welfare and methods used by the state to encourage welfare recipients into employment, I learned new information from court testimony about family dynamics and relationships, the sale of drugs, brothel keeping, the mechanisms of yakuza fraud, embezzlement, extortion, the challenges facing people looking after elder relatives (the two cases of deliberate killing heard during my time at the Matsumoto courts each involved a middle-aged son who had beaten his mother to death).

Did the fact of being an Irishman –– the only foreigner –– covering the court cases open doors or close them for you?

In the broader scheme of things foreign journalists in any country generally lack the access they may get at home and Japan has the added problem of the Press Clubs, which tend to exclude foreigners and freelancers. in writing the book, however, access wasn’t a huge problem. My request to do formal interviews with prosecutors and judges were denied as was a visit to the main prison in Nagano. But there is free access (for anyone) to the adult criminal courts, the clerks were very helpful with queries about sentencing, charges or other issues. Interviews with local government officials and lawyers were easy to get and government departments (notably Justice) were extremely helpful.

Access to defendants was limited mainly because virtually all of them were in custody during their trials. When it came to interviewing people connected to the cases my feeling is that being a foreigner may have helped overall rather than hindered. Certainly, being a foreigner in Matsumoto still has a tiny amount of novelty value (it happens, though rarely, that small children would point and announce to their pals when they spot a foreigner –– “mite, mite gaijin/gaikokujin da”) It’s probable that some people were happy to speak to a foreigner out of curiosity. A couple of people told me they were happy to speak with me because I was writing in a language that neither they nor the people around them would be likely to read or understand. Many people seemed happy for the opportunity to tell their story and would probably have been equally willing to talk to a Japanese journalist had they been approached.

The man benefit of being a foreigner was that I looked at the court proceedings literally with foreign eyes. It definitely helped that when I started writing the book I had spent most of the previous decade outside of Japan, so I was looking at things afresh. There were many times in the court when things that I found fascinating appeared entirely unremarkable to the Japanese present in court. In the Hara arson case, the parents’ plan to kill themselves and their daughter was little remarked upon in the court proceedings and was not mentioned in any of the four court reports on the case in the Shinano Mainichi newspaper. For me it was far and away the most interesting part of the case and was central to the chapter when I wrote about it.

How did you boost your proficiency in the Japanese language to be able to cover court cases?

I have lived and worked in Japan for a decade in total and Japanese is spoken generally at home (my wife is Japanese) so my understanding of spoken Japanese is good. My reading is not good but I can read enough to understand court reports and to search for details of specific cases in Japanese. I also obviously learned lots of new legal terms. The core of the book revolved around testimony and cross examination which I had little difficulty understanding. I think most foreigners with a reasonable level of spoken Japanese would be surprised by how much of courtroom exchanges they will understand. In some cases, typically arson or manslaughter, there was testimony from a forensics expert which involved specialised language. On those days, I would ask my wife to go to court and take notes.

What, or who, do you consider to be the best news sources or resources on Japan in English? And for that matter, in Japanese?

As an English-language resource, the Asia-Pacific Journal Japan Focus is peerless for its intelligent, accessible articles on a range of topics, including crime and justice. I think the best English language paper on Japan is The Japan Times. Among the best books for giving a ground-level view of society are Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein, which gives a down and dirty view of Japanese crime, I also enjoyed Robert Whiting’s Tokyo Underworld .For a view of old Japan, I really liked Japan at War: An Oral History by Haruko and Theodore Cook. I am a fan of the journalism of Kaori Shoji, Michael Hoffmann, Mark Schreiber and Philip Brasor.

In my view, the best foreign correspondent over the last dozen years in Japan has been David McNeill of the Economist, Independent and the Irish Times, who is extremely knowledgeable about Japan and is an excellent writer. His co-authored book Strong in the Rain about the 2011 tsunami and aftermath is well worth reading. For law, I found The Japanese way of Justice by David Johnson well-written, and uniquely brilliant.
Regarding Japanese, sources, I am not comfortable reading Japanese so if there is an English-language alternative I will always seize it enthusiastically. However for the purposes of writing True Crime Japan the best Japanese sources were the court reports of the Shinano Mainichi newspaper, the Sankei Shimbun and the Asahi, as well as official publications such as National Police Agency reports.

Is there a Japan story that isn’t being told, that you’d like to hear? Or tell yourself?

This is an excellent question. I suppose the easy answer is that in any society there are untold stories and it is the job of journalists to seek people out and try to tell them. I would love to read in insiders account of the workings of institutions such as the LDP, of the police, the decline of a Japanese mammoth such as Sony or Sharp, the arms sector (is Japan really a hair’s breadth away from possessing nuclear arms?) and dozens others.

Can you say a little about your route to publication? Did you ever consider self-publishing? How was it working with Tuttle?

I’d love to say that the route to True Crime Japan, which is my first book, was paved with rejection slips and that I had to battle stubbornly to get published, but I was really, really lucky. In late 2013, a journalist friend had told me that Tuttle were looking for book suggestions. I contacted them on a Thursday with a brief outline of my own background in journalism and what I wanted to write about. I expected their response to take months but they got back the following Monday. They were interested but needed a sample chapter. ‘Take your time,’ I was told. Three months later I sent a chapter. Again, I expected a long response time, but, again, they came back in five days. They liked the chapter, with a few caveats –– I was told to drop the footnotes and make the statistical references less academic. The publisher wanted two more chapters before making a decision. I had been working on other chapters so a fortnight later I sent them two more and the following week they sent me a contract. If I was surprised at how speedy the acceptance process was I was also surprised at how long it took before the book was on the shelves. I sent the manuscript to the publishers in Sept 1, 2014. It took almost two years before the book was in shops, all of the editing (which was excellent), production, design, marketing and distribution took much longer than I would have originally anticipated.

What’s next for you? Can we expect any more writing about Japan?

I’m not sure. If this book is a success, I might try writing another one. I think Japan remains under-explained in English. I wrote True Crime Japan not because I am especially interested in criminal justice (though I am), but because in the courtroom I was able to get a glimpse into people’s everyday lives. I saw a rawness and openness in defendant’s testimony that I had not witnessed elsewhere in Japan. The reason why a book that is supposed to be about crime diverts into whaling, pachinko, the ageing society, inheritance practice, domestic sleeping arrangements, suicide, war crimes, average house size, number of houses with outdoor toilets, average sleeping hours, workplace bullying as well as drug dealers, pimps, extortionists, embezzlers and pinkie chopping is because I wanted to write a book about Japanese society (the title True Crime Japan was the publishers insistence, I would have preferred Through Crime, Japan because I don’t think it is a typical true-crime book). The courtroom and the words of the defendants are an instructive lens through which to view an instructive society. But there are limits. While, for example, the trial of an ultra-right yakuza/extortionist gave an opportunity to discuss the far right in Japan, there was little opportunity to discuss mainstream Japanese politics. If I were to write another book, I would love to do a Japanese version of The Spaniards, written by an English journalist called John Hooper about post-Franco Spain. I read it in 1994, when I had moved to Madrid –– a year before I first moved to Japan. Not much sticks in my memory from 23 years ago, but The Spaniards does. It’s an excellent read.

As is your book. Thanks for the interview.

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True Crime Japan is available from all good bookstores including all Amazon sites, the book is on the .com site right here.

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