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Japan: Two Laws Adopted to Improve Use of Autopsies

(June 25, 2012) Among corpses handled by police in 2011, only 11%were autopsied. This number is much lower than that of most of developed countries, except for the United States. (Cabinet Committee, House of Representatives, Minutes No. 7 of 180th Diet Session (May 18, 2012).) In King County, Washington State, in the United States, for example, the autopsy rate is 12.5%. (Study Group on the Cause of the Death Investigation System to Prevent Overlooking Causes of Death by Criminal Acts, Regarding the Cause-of-Death Investigation System Designed to Prevent Overlooking Causes of Death by Criminal Acts [in Japanese] [hereinafter NPA Report], National Police Agency website (Apr. 2011).)

The necessity of conducting more autopsies in Japan has been recognized over the last several years. There was a famous case in 2007 in which a healthy teenage boy died suddenly, but the local police did not suspect a crime, an autopsy was not done, and no criminal investigation was conducted. Soon afterwards, the parents took the body to a hospital and asked for an autopsy. It turned out that the boy, a young sumo wrestler, had died from a beating at his sumo stable. There have been other famous cases in which the police investigators overlooked crimes when autopsies had not been conducted. (Id.)

There are several reasons why many autopsies have not been done during police investigations. One of them is that when an investigator is not certain whether the cause of death involves a criminal act, an autopsy cannot be conducted without the consent of a member of the deceased person's family. Family members may be reluctant to consent to a dissection of the body. Sometimes, family members may be the perpetrators and therefore refuse autopsies to avoid discovery of evidence. In addition, there is a shortage of post-mortem examiners and a lack of funds. (NPA Report, supra.)

In June 2012, the Diet (Japan's parliament) enacted two laws to improve the autopsy system in relation to criminal investigation. One is the Act on Investigation of Cause of Death and on Identification of Bodies Handled by the Police (Keisatsu to_ga toriatsukau shitai no shiin mata wa mimoto no cho_sa to_ ni kansuru ho_ritsu, Act No. 34 of 2012 (June 22, 2012)). Under this new law, police are permitted to take blood and urine samples for tests and to do autopsy imaging of the body, if it is necessary for the investigation. The police can also force the performance of an autopsy without family consent, if it is recommended by a forensic medical examiner. The explanation of the need for an autopsy must be provided to the family, provided the family members are known and reachable.

The second law is the Act on the Promotion of Cause of Death Investigation. (Shiin kyu_mei to_ no suishin ni kansuru ho_ritsu, Act No. 33 of 2012 (June 22, 2012),) This law obligates the national government to make a plan to promote cause-of-death investigations; it expires two years after the effective date. The government wants the rate of autopsying to eventually rise to 20% of corpses handled by the police. (Cabinet Committee, supra.)