The [Japanese] police believe that because Japan is one of the world’s most crime-free societies, they must be great crime fighters. In fact, the opposite is true: Japan is peaceful, safe and regimented not because of, but despite, the frequently disgraceful performance of its guardians. ... Certain policing — the local, grass-roots work of directing traffic, helping confused pedestrians and reassuring people that everything is under control — is done very well in Japan. But against out-of-the-ordinary crimes, the Japanese police are ill equipped.
One reason: Japanese investigators rely on confessions far more than their Western counterparts. The police are skilled at persuading suspects — guilty or not — to confess. (In this they are aided greatly by their ability to hold a suspect without charge for up to 23 days). Without an admission of guilt, prosecutors are reluctant to charge. But the dependence on confessions means Japanese detectives are not used to building cases and proving guilt.
In researching a book about the notorious killer and serial rapist Joji Obara, who operated for years under the noses of the police, I talked to detectives who were almost indignant about his refusal to confess. The idea that cunning, stubbornness and lies were to be expected from a criminal — that it was in order to deal with such people that the police existed — didn’t seem obvious to them at all. In their minds, they weren’t incompetent or unimaginative or lazy. They were the unlucky victims of that rare thing in the world’s most law-abiding country: the dishonest criminal.
Richard Lloyd Parry, the Asia editor for The Times of London, is the author of “People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished From the Streets of Tokyo — and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up.”