See also our Brutal Realities of Prison in Japan.


Disclaimer: No legal counsel have been consulted in the production of this article and this should not be considered legal advice. Instead it is a look at the realities involving arrest, interrogation and confinement in Japan regardless of ones guilt or innocence.

Being arrested is not too terribly different from being captured by an enemy force in a military engagement and by that I mean you’re fucked.

This becomes exponentially more true when one is arrested in a foreign country and even more so when that country’s laws are dramatically different from those of your home country.

Japan is a highly advanced nation with a powerful economy and a fair amount of “western” ideals and culture. That having been said, the criminal justice system in Japan is uniquely Japanese and varies considerably from anything one has likely encountered in any other place.  The following are realities you need to be prepared for if you are arrested in Japan….

7. You are Guilty until proven Innocent

In Japan if you’re arrested, it’s seen by the police and the prosecutor and even by society at large as a sign of your guilt.

Circular logic anyone?

This is due largely to the existence of Japan’s supremely high conviction rate, 99 percent, and a blind trust and commitment to the institutions wielding power.

After all, how could anyone ever get arrested unless they were guilty, right?

Subsequently, if you claim innocence you will immediately receive harsher treatment both during interrogation, court proceedings and particularly in sentencing. A confession of guilt is not only considered the king of all evidence (shoko no o)  in Japanese courts but is also thought to be a clear sign of remorse. This remorse is considered by the judge as an indicator of how likely the arrested individual is to actually rehabilitate and smoothly re-enter society.

Clearly not arrested in Japan.

What you can do:

Relax. You have been arrested and initially all the police will want from you is information. Slow down. Be confused. Be disoriented, at least appear to be. Consider speaking only English, avoid using Japanese. Ask about seeing someone from your Embassy. Do not sign anything.

6. You have very few rights

Everything that occurs from the moment you first meet the police to conviction in court is designed to ensure that the state wins and you lose. Your “rights” as they are conventionally accepted in the west simply are not a high priority.  A good example here is the lack of an attorney during the lengthy interrogation periods with police.

You can be detained for questioning for up to 48 hours, then the prosecutor can grant the police a 10 day detention permission which can and will be (almost without exception) extended for up to 21 days, with a possible two-day extension after this .

This means you can be held for up to 23 days in almost all cases without being charged with any crime.

It cannot be expressed enough in this article or by the police who will interrogate you how critical this initial 24-48 hour period is. When you are arrested it will be a shocking experience. The police will likely handcuff you, search you and confiscate your belongings. You will then be taken to a police station and the initial interrogations will begin.

What you can do:

Again-Relax. Looking distressed and confused for everyone else is fine but inside you need to control yourself, slow things down and make logical decisions. You can just assume that you will be detained for the full 23 days. You will not get bail. Accept this and begin thinking about the long-term. Who can you contact that you trust and can responsibly help you? Nobody within the institutions holding you are interested in your well-being, you have to organize a support network and hopefully your friends or family in the country can help.

5. You will be heavily/aggressively interrogated

Your interrogation will begin as soon as you are in police custody. Likely, this will begin in the van or car while you are being transported to the station and will continue in a cramped little room at the station later. This initial interrogation will last late into the night and will involve several different officers, if resources allow. You will most likely get to sleep an hour or so before you have to wake up and your second round of interrogation will begin that morning after a cold rice and boiled egg breakfast.  Expect this to go all day and into the next night.

Hope you brought your appetite!

At this point, the police are trying to maximize your shock and discomfort and will utilize these factors in getting you to sign an initial statement that will be as close to a confession as they can possibly make it. They will make you promises and assurances that you can go home once they have “cleared everything up” and they “fully understand the case”.  These are lies, a tactic to trick you and nothing else. This document will be what allows the prosecutor to issue the initial detention permission.  However, the act of you NOT signing it can be given as suspicion to hold you further.

Catch 22: Enjoy.

Just like military interrogation, expect this initial phase to be very loud, late into the night and prepare to be bullied and even physically coerced. A common tactic which they can easily get away with, is grabbing your shirt collar and shaking you whilst screaming in your face. It leaves no marks, does not cause pain but it is an excellent shock technique.  It lets you know they are in control and hints at the possibility of more serious physical measures yet to come. This can be very unpleasant for someone who has never dealt with the combination of physical and psychological intimidation before.  Since Japanese interrogations are conducted in cramped, bare windowless rooms and are not video taped, these physical techniques are completely deniable.

What you can do:

Accept that you are going to be heavily interrogated, often for up to 12 hours per day or even more if your case is very serious, first by a group of police, then by a pair of officers dedicated to your case  that play good cop/bad cop and then by the prosecutor.  All will employ varying systems and techniques to try to get into your mind and illicit a confession to their satisfaction, true or not.

They are going to use various methods to make you talk and to gain your trust and compliance. They do not care about the details, what they want is simply to get you talking to them and to form a kind of relationship based on your compliance with their demands for information.

Remember, every time you comply with their demands you are giving away a little piece of control. 

You will find that as the interrogations go on and you provide information, they will make small allowances in your favor. A coffee. Moving the interrogation to a larger room with a big window. Removing your hand cuffs. Flattering you. This is all part of the system to make you comply and support them.

You should be a very neutral man. You are not fighting them, but you are not passively obeying all commands. Always look miserable, sick and tired but in your mind you have to maintain a strong position and realize one way or another this will all end.

Whether you are innocent and being falsely accused, lying to protect a friend or loved one, or simply a criminal trying to get off (My advice is to not get on the wrong side of the law anywhere, period), you have to stay mentally sharp in these situations because the people questioning you are professionals.

Finally and this is critical, avoid showing anyone how much Japanese you speak, read or write. Insist on an interpreter. This slows down proceedings and the police officer doing the interpreting is more easily engaged as a friendly asset than the other two cops building a case against you. If you succeed in building rapport with the police interpreter, they can even subconsciously begin defending you and deflecting overtly aggressive questions from the other officers interrogating you by softening the translations and even giving you subliminal gestures and ques regarding what you should and should not say.

4. Your lawyer is a Moron/Liar

Defense attorneys everywhere have a very bad reputation and this is not so different in Japan. When a lawyer is finally contacted and you are allowed to meet them, do not expect much.

Attorneys in Japan generally work on a case fee basis. So they charge a flat fee for taking your case and there are additional fees for every subsequent task you ask them to perform.

For example after retaining a lawyer, you arrange for a friend to pay a 5,000 dollar deposit to the Lawyer. Then, your lawyer asks you if you want to file for bail. This is an additional 3,000 dollars in fees, not including the actual bail money which they will tell you needs to be produced before filing. The thing your lawyer will not tell you, and will likely in fact lie to you about, is that bail is rarely granted even to Japanese citizens and is almost never granted to foreign nationals arrested in Japan.  You will not get bail, but the fee to the lawyer will be gone and he/she will now know you have access to other funds.

“Too-lust-o me…You get a bail no ploblem my fliend-o!”

Also, despite what your lawyer might tell you, he/she is constantly in communication with the prosecutor and the police. They have all been sharing facts and figures in order to attempt to seal the potential charges as much as possible and help things proceed forward. This is not to say that your legal counsel is trying to screw you, at least legally, but rather their concept of what is good for you is vastly different from what you think it is and you are unlikely to get any real sound legal advice from them at any point during the proceedings anyway.  Often times, situations are so ambiguous your lawyer will be unable to even tell you if you are being charged with a misdemeanor or a felony.

What you can do:

There are really only three primary concerns here that you have any control over.

One: Make sure that the attorney you retain is a CRIMINAL attorney and has actual experience with your type of case. Having a great tax attorney helping you with your Assault charge is counter-productive.

Two: Never let your attorney know how much money you have at your disposal. This is a massive mistake made by people who are under pressure. If you let the attorney know that you have funds at your disposal they will try to separate those funds from you. Reparation payments to “victims” often have clauses that you are unaware of guaranteeing certain funds to your attorney. In addition to that, if there is money to be gotten, you might get ill advice urging you to attempt legal maneuvers simply so that your counselor can get paid more. Be smart, make it clear you are poor.

In the end, if a payment to a victim is necessary, say for example 3,000,000 yen, you could pay 1,000,000 and produce a letter ensuring you will pay the remaining 2,000,000 at a later time. Something that is impossible to enforce if you say, just left the country after your release.

Three: Ensure that your attorney is an English-speaking MAN. This has nothing to do with a woman’s ability or lack there of to perform the duties of a lawyer but rather the realities of a legal institution still largely dominated by men;  Men that do not like female attorneys.  He needs to speak English to make his meeting with you more smooth and easy. If a translator is always necessary this would reduce the amount of meetings you could have.  If your Japanese is excellent it should be no problem but even the best Japanese speakers will likely have trouble with complex legal jargon.

3. Your Embassy cannot Help you

Although it is highly recommended that you do contact your Embassy, it is also highly unlikely that they will be able to help you at all.

You are in the custody of a “friendly” foreign government that has sovereign rights and their own laws. Like it or not the institutions of power view you as a threat and you have been arrested. You are now beyond the reach of your government. They can provide legal advice and likely let your loved ones at home know about your situation but beyond that they can do very little.

“Sorry, no paddle. But we’ll make sure you get your Christmas Card up there on Shit Creek.”

What you can do:

The Embassy cannot get you out, but they can do a few things.
First, they can visit you, make sure you are healthy and not being subjected to clear physical abuse. This is a very powerful deterrent to someone who might otherwise resort to these activities. Knowing that someone is coming to check on you, someone who could cause trouble, is a deterrent.

Your embassy can also bring English literature, or whatever language you speak, and as stated above can contact your loved ones at home. Finally, it can be very refreshing to have an unmonitored conversation in your native tongue and to know that at least someone knows where you are and what has happened to you. The Japanese police are obliged by international treaties to allow you to contact and be visited by your embassy. Insist that this occurs.  It is an easy way to keep your motivation high and make people aware that you have options even if you really don’t.

Also, it should be said that all embassies are not created equal.  American, Britain, Germany, Canada and Australia are generally respected and the visits you receive will be regular.  Mexico, Bangladesh and the Philippines, not so much.

2. Japan’s love of rules and order extends to confinement accommodations

The conditions of confinement both at the police stations and at the regional detention centers are designed to foster two reactions: Control and Cooperation.

The conditions at the police stations can vary wildly depending on which station one finds ones self at and the level of attention both positive and negative that one gets from the guards.

All police officers spend some time working as detention center guards at some point. They cycle through for 2 or 3 years and then go back out working the streets or other special duties. Conversely many fresh new officers also pull detention duty early on. Your relationship with these guards can make things much worse or much less uncomfortable.

Generally, you will be in a cell with 3-6 other men. You spend the days sitting on the floor or standing in the cell. You are not allowed to lay down, and the futons are stowed in a closet every morning and retrieved for sleep every night.  They are not comfortable.  You may read books if friends have brought them for you or if you have an interest in the police stations extremely shabby library which consists of books left by former guests, complete with messages and mental notes including anecdotes considering suicide. Do not expect to find English Literature abundant or even present.

Note inside: “Hope this helps pass the time.”Reply underneath: “I want to die.”

The meals are all Japanese and are of poor quality. The average daily caloric intake is around 1800 kcal or a bit higher if you have money in your account to order a proper lunch box on the days that is allowed. There are no such things as snacks or drinks at the police station detention centers however this changes once you are moved to the regional detention center, this transfer indicating you are absolutely being prosecuted.

Plan to lose weight, almost all foreigners do, up to 5 kilograms within the first week and 15 within 6 weeks.

Bathing is done once every 5 days as a group with your cell mates and it too is Japanese style. You are watched by an officer while bathing.

Visitors are allowed during the weekdays however if you plan to speak a language other than Japanese, an interpreter must be present at your expense. During all visitations except those of your lawyer or your embassy an officer will be present transcribing what is being said. At the police stations these visits are a maximum of 10 minutes and can be shorter if they are busy. Again, ones relationship with the guards is important in this case.

What you can do:

If you are simply visiting Japan, or if you live here but have very western life style habits, then being incarcerated in Japan will be more difficult for you.
Everything is Japanese. Other languages are not permitted even if another foreigner is nearby. The daily routine is strictly observed and kept. It is a humiliating experience. What you can do to make it more bearable is to relax. Follow the rules and stay with the group. Being in solitary confinement, in your own room, is no more physically uncomfortable however mentally it is more taxing and isolating.  A great deal of information and advice can be gotten from other inmates and guards so build rapport and be polite.

Respect the guards and take every opportunity to build rapport without seeming needing.  Japanese jail is not like its counter part in America; the gangsters generally respect the police, and the police them.

Never ask for favors, you wont get them. However, it is likely that they will be interested in you. If you have been arrested for drugs or sexual assault, do everything you can to appear sorry for your actions and ready to rehabilitate but be prepared for a more cynical reaction from the guards.

Conversely, if you are arrested on assault charges, particularly against another foreigner, it is likely that you will get some sort of grudging respect from the police. Forget any kind of bravado, simply be humble and quiet and it’s likely the guards will take care of you.

1. Money Talks

Most cases in Japan, both civil and criminal and the corresponding punishments are largely effected by paying some sort of restitution or fine.

A relatively simple assault charge, a fist fight with some broken noses in a commercial establishment, can avoid prosecution by offering a payment to the victim, perhaps 10,000 US or 1,000,000 million yen and a formal, written apology.

More extreme situations involving larger amounts lost to theft or a more severe beating/attacks will also require a monetary payment and apologies to avoid a prison sentence, or a reduced sentence. Money here says much more than it does in the western criminal justice system.

In Japan, money is the ultimate apology, the ultimate thank you, and the ultimate expression of love.

What you can do:

“You don’t count your money, when your sittin’ at the table.”
The immortal words of Mr. Kenny Rogers. It’s true in gambling and its true here. If you tell your lawyer or the prosecutor how much money you have to work with, then they will take that from you.

It’s not because these are bad people, they are simply components within an institution and this is their function. IF they didn’t do this, they would be replaced. You have to be aware of this, and play your hand carefully. You have to tell your loved ones or friends that might be contacted by your lawyer or anyone else to make it clear that you have very little money if any at all while still keeping the attorney involved. Being arrested, charged with something you may or may not deserve and being humiliated is bad enough.

There is no good reason to add 3 or 4 years of debt onto everything unless it is absolutely necessary.

More info on Criminal Justice in Japan



How long can I be detained by the Japanese police without charges being filed?

Basically, the answer here is 3 weeks.  If you are detained after this point it is because the prosecutor has sufficient confidence that he can convict you and is bringing you up on charges. However, up to the three-week point they can hold you “just because”, question your friends, your company, search your home etc.  Essentially ruin your life and then simple decide to let you go without so much as a “oh…sorry”.

I have a friend who has been arrested. Can I go visit him?

Yes. Usually.  In some very sensitive cases visitation might be limited but usually you will be allowed to visit someone being detained at a police station.  Be prepared to fill out some paper work when you visit though. Also, bring ID and if you or your friend cannot speak Japanese unless you are very lucky you will have to pay to arrange a translator. This is expensive and time-consuming.  Also, the time allotted for your visit will be short, 20 minutes is a best case scenario and anything you say can be used as evidence in the ongoing investigation.

I am being told to pay a large amount of money to the victim and I think it is excessive. What can I do?

You can have your lawyer, private or public either one, draft a document which is like a letter of promise; you agree to pay a percentage of the restitution upfront, say 20%, and promise to pay the rest at intervals in the future.  These documents are taken seriously by the court and are a close second to simply paying the full amount upfront.  Once you are out however you can simply defer payment of the final amount indefinitely.  There is little recourse for the other party beyond a civil suit which is costly and incredibly time-consuming.  For any amount under fifty million yen it is unlikely that they would pursue this as long as you avoid flagrantly telling them to fuck off.

My friend/relative has been arrested in Japan and we haven’t heard from them. What can we do?

You can and should contact your embassy, as many times as it takes, until they have met with your friend/relative.  Japan is obligated to allow these visits based on International law, even if they delay such meetings early on.

If you have specific questions or need immediate advice, please contact us below.

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