Bills eyed to enable police to conduct autopsies without family consent

(Mainichi Japan) March 16, 2012


In this March 19, 2011 file photo, Tayo Kitamura, 40, kneels on the street to caress and talk to the wrapped body of her mother Kuniko Kitamura, 69, after Japanese firemen discovered the dead woman inside the ruins of her home in Onagawa, Japan. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Ruling and opposition parties are planning to submit two bills to parliament that would enable police to conduct autopsies without the consent of relatives when it is uncertain whether a person died naturally or clearly was killed in a crime, lawmakers said Thursday.

If enacted, they would be the first laws in Japan to articulate the system of identifying the cause of death. In 2011, autopsies were performed on only 11 percent of bodies handled by police.

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito party plan to submit to the current session of parliament bills sponsored by member lawmakers that would oblige police to probe the cause of death so as not to overlook deaths caused by criminal acts.

Under the new system, police will be given the authority to conduct autopsies without family approval if they find such an examination necessary to clarify the cause of death after hearing opinions of forensic doctors and other experts.

Police will also be required to explain to relatives, unless their whereabouts is unknown, why an autopsy is needed.

When police decide not to perform autopsies, they can request doctors conduct tests on urine and blood samples and examine bodies by computer tomography.

The bills stipulate that a new certification system will be introduced for forensic scientists at universities who are commissioned by police to perform autopsies. Eventually, the legislation proposes the central government set up special institutions across Japan to perform official autopsies.

When the cause of death is found to be infectious disease, police will alert public health departments. The envisioned new system will not cover deaths resulting from possible medical malpractice.

The government aims to raise the ratio of bodies handled by police on which autopsies are performed to 20 percent in five years.

In 2007, police did not conduct an autopsy on a sumo wrestler who died from hazing, failing to suspect foul play. The wrestler's family subsequently asked a university to examine the body, which led to criminal prosecution of his stablemaster.

Japan's autopsy rate woefully low

Kuchikomi Aug. 05, 2011 -

It’s an astonishing fact, in these murky times, that only 11% of the corpses Japanese police deal with are autopsied. This can’t possibly be adequate. A glance at autopsy rates elsewhere confirms this suspicion. Among developed countries, 50% is about average. In Sweden, it’s nearly 90%.

How many murders, then, go undetected?

“Finally,” reports the Nishi Nihon Shimbun (July 27), the government is beginning to address this deficiency. The first step is a task force, launched jointly in July by the National Police Agency (NPA) and the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, charged with improving the system for clarifying cause of death. Its modest aim is to raise the percentage of bodies autopsied to 20% in five years.

The insufficiency of the current setup was brought home to the general public by the death in June 2007 of a 17-year-old junior sumo wrestler in Aichi Prefecture. A body as bruised and battered as his was should have drawn some suspicious attention when he was brought to hospital, where he died, but Aichi police declined to investigate it as a crime until the boy’s parents, dissatisfied with the official explanation (heart failure), pressed for an autopsy. This revealed systematic violence, supposedly part of his “training,” for which, in 2009, the stablemaster was sentenced to six years in prison.

Police deal with more than 170,000 corpses a year, according to the NPA, and the fact that nearly 90% cannot be autopsied, maintains Nishi Nihon Shimbun, means that homicide might be going undetected. Between 1998 and 2010, the newspaper reports, 43 deaths originally ascribed to suicide or illness later turned out to be murder.

Why can’t more bodies be autopsied? It boils down basically to a question of manpower. Experts are few and thinly scattered across the country. As of now, nationwide, only 170 are fully qualified to perform autopsies, and more than half of those are professors of forensic medicine for whom doing autopsies is a sideline. Some prefectures have only one qualified medical investigator. Any serious reform will involve first of all a vigorous program to train the necessary personnel in sufficient numbers. Let this be done as speedily as possible, pleads the Nishi Nihon Shimbun.

Police plan to increase autopsies
Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The government set up a high-level working group Tuesday to study how to better identify causes of death when foul play is suspected and increase autopsies in such cases, according to officials.

The government made the decision in a ministerial meeting on crime that was attended by Prime Minister Nao­to Kan and all 17 Cabinet ministers.

The National Police Agency said police forces nationwide in 2010 handled more than 170,000 people who apparently died of unnatural causes but only performed autopsies on 11 percent of them.

The government plans to raise the rate to 20 percent over the next five years, the officials said.

Kan instructed the ministers to work out measures to avoid failing to identify deaths resulting from foul play.

The working team will discuss how to increase the number of anatomy experts from the current 170, expand testing for pharmaceutical and poisonous materials, and build up databases of dental records and DNA, the officials said.

The NPA said at least 43 murder cases since 1998 involved causes of death that were initially judged as suicide or disease-related.

Japan law enforcement authorities to conduct more autopsies

2011July 26

The Japanese government set up a high-level working group Tuesday to study how to better identify causes of death in cases of possible foul play and lift the number of autopsies in such cases, officials said.

The government made the decision in a ministerial meeting on crime which was attended by Prime Minister Naoto Kan and all 17 Cabinet ministers.

The National Police Agency said the country's police forces in 2010 handled more than 170,000 bodies believed to have had unnatural causes of death, only 11 percent of which underwent autopsy.


Panel proposes conducting autopsies
without approval of family

An expert panel under the National Police Agency on Thursday proposed giving police commanders the authority to conduct autopsies without court permission and approval of bereaved families when it is uncertain whether a person died naturally or was killed.

The panel apparently aims at ensuring deaths caused by criminal acts are not overlooked by police forces. Police dealt with 171,025 bodies last year, of which only 19,083, or 11.2%, were subjected to autopsies, stirring concerns that many suspicious deaths have been left uninvestigated.

Under the proposal, each prefecture will newly create a special organization for autopsies and increase the number of coroners to examine deaths from suffocation or by poisoning.

The agency will consider submitting relevant bills to the Diet in around five years’ time to introduce the new system in cooperation with the health and science ministries, officials said.