The Kabutoyama Case:

Persecution by Prosecution.

by Michael H. Fox

Originally Published in Kansai Time Out
Sep, 2000.

In March of 1974, two children (ages 11 and 12) disappeared from the Kabutoyama Gakuen, a school for mentally retarded children in Nishinomiya City, Japan. A massive search involving the community and the mass media came to a frightful end when the bodies were recovered from the school's septic tank.

The circumstances of the two deaths indicated accident. The vacuum of the septic tank recovered many items such as toys, clothing, and eating utensils and dishes. The children used to play atop the cover of the septic tank, and it was evident that the 35 pound lid had been opened and shut several times.

Despite the evidence indicating accident, the police choose to investigate the case as a murder. The deaths of the two children, perishing in a dark fetid doom, grabbed the attention of the media. A high profile murder case is a watershed for ambitious and promotion hungry police officials who love seeing their names in the newspapers and faces on television.

The investigation centered on 22 year old female teacher, Etsuko Yamada. Yamada was one of three teachers on duty when one of the children is thought to have disappeared. Her upbringing, slightly different from ordinary Japanese, attracted police attention. Born in the mountains of central Japan, she was raised by a father who married and divorced three times. And unlike the typical Japanese woman, she was assertive and blunt. After growing tired of repeated interrogations, she decided to break the stress by kidding with the investigating officer. In response to yet another prying question she rebutted: "Tell me, what kind of food is served in prison."

Some three weeks after the deaths, Yamada was arrested with great fanfare in front of TV cameras. The absence of evidence was not problematic, criminal investigation in Japan allows authorities leeway unknown in most civil societies. After arrest, the suspect can be held in a police station cell and interrogated for 23 days from morning till night. Access to attorneys is at the whim of the investigator. Police are free to use verbal abuse; threats and intimidation; restriction of meals and toilet privileges. The aim is to extract a confession, the king of all evidence.

In western legal consciousness, confessions have hardly the same impact. Medieval Europe and the Spanish Inquisition left an indelible mark upon the West, not so the East. When speaking in public, Sakae Menda, the post war first death row convict to have his sentence reversed, is assailed with "Why did you confess.".

The crux of the problem is less the use of violence by police, but the admission of such coerced confessions by the judiciary. In jury-less Japan, the verdict lays entirely with judges. Judges in Japan, most of whom join the bench after passing the bar exam in their twenties, have never worked as attorneys, and serve as agents of social control, not arbiters of justice. The judiciary is not independent: judges and prosecutors are both employed by the Ministry of Justice, and as such, view each other as part of the same team. The formulated reality regarding confessions, is "If you want to make a good omelette, you gotta crack a few eggs."

Unfortunately for the police, the interrogation of Etsuko Yamada did not go according to expectations. The 22 year old would not crack. Being interrogated around the clock by in a small windowless room, battered with questions, made to bathe under a camera, denied a band to tie her thick hair, and given an insufficient supply of sanitary napkins, all this did little to rupture her resolve. After a week, she remained intransigent. Then two weeks passed, Finally, after 16 days, police were able to coerce a written statement: "I believe I committed the crimes while unconscious." On the 18th day, almost nearly out of her senses, Yamada gave in and signed a full confession.

With confessions in hand the next step in common judicial procedure is a formal indictment by the prosecution. But without verifiable evidence or credible testimony little could be done. With the public desire for a scapegoat satiated and Yamada's name already permanently destroyed, the police released their suspect, "pending further investigation."

This story might well have ended here. The police expected their confessor to disappear into some obscure mountain village. The public would soon forget the case; the overseeing detectives would be rewarded for making their mark. The prestige of of the law enforcement authorities would be reaffirmed in the public's eye.

Many plots veer from their intended courses, this one egregiously so. Rather than fleeing to some distant province, ,Yamada aided by a pro bono legal team, filed charges against the police demanding printed apologies in the newspapers and remuneration for abuse according to the State Redress Law.

Three years later, with the suit gaining momentum and getting coverage in the press, Yamada was re-arrested. The argument for vengeful re-arrest is quite strong: the new evidence against her consisted of eyewitness testimony given by former wards of the school--all mentally retarded-- taken three years and several months after the incident. She was tried three subsequent times, and though ultimately found innocent, forced to spend the next twenty two years (1978~2000) in the courts. She was unable to find regular employment throughout this time span, and despite being declared innocent, never received any redress whatsoever.