What to do if arrested in Japan

August 2008

I DO HOPE that you will NEVER need this information. It is however better to be aware of the fact that even if you only commit a minor offence, as a foreigner, you are more likely to be indicted compared to a Japanese national.

If you are arrested on the charge of shoplifting or theft, you will almost certainly be prosecuted. Normally, the Japanese police often tolerate the first offence; but as for foreigners, the authorities deal with the case as they would a previous offender's. You should also bear in mind that violations of the Road Traffic Law can also be prosecuted. (For example, driving without a valid license.) Also, drug charges are taken very seriously and can lead to long imprisonment and deportation.

Japan is an independent, sovereign country. One of the chief attributes of sovereignty is the right of a country to make and enforce laws within its own borders. The government has the internationally recognized right to try foreigners as well as its own nationals within its territory. Anyone who breaks the law in Japan is, therefore, subject to prosecution under the Japanese legal system. If a person is convicted and sentenced to imprisonment by a Japanese court, this sentence will be served in a Japanese prison.

Foreign embassies and consulates can and do intercede on behalf of their countrymen arrested in Japan, but there are limits on what they can do to help in any given situation. Despite what you may have heard, no embassy or consulates can get you out of jail.
What they can and will do are very different depending on the country.
Most embassies/consulates will;

  • visit you in jail after being notified of your arrest to check on your health and the treatment accorded you by the police;
  • give you a list of local English-speaking attorneys;
  • intercede with local authorities to ensure that your rights under Japanese law are fully observed and help bridge communication gaps between you and your jailers;
  • protest mistreatment or abuse of foreign prisoners;
  • supply you with English-language reading material;
  • notify your family and friends of your arrests, relay requests for financial assistance.

Under Japanese law, you may be arrested and detained without bail for 48 hours by the police on suspicion of having committed a crime. During this period, the police are required to inform you of the crime of which you are suspected, of your right to remain silent, of your right to hire a lawyer at your own expense and of your right to have the Embassy or the Consulate notified of your arrest. If an arrestee is unable to hire a lawyer, he or she is not entitled to receive a court appointed - Lawyer until after indictment.

Consequently, the police usually begin their initial questioning before you see a lawyer. (If you can not communicate in Japanese it is important to notify the arresting officer and to request for an interpreter from the outset.) If the police believe they have enough evidence to detain you, they must present this evidence to a public prosecutor within the initial 48-hour detention period.

You do not need to reply to any of the questions made by the police or the prosecutor if you do not want to do so. Your right to remain silent is guaranteed by the Constitution of Japan, however, in reality, it may reinforce the suspicion in the mind of the investigator and can be used as a reason for prolonging the detention.

The important thing to remember is that a false confession is dangerous. You must not admit to any action you have not committed. Do not think that "confessing" will able you to go home or that you can "explain" the truth later at the trial. At the time of investigation you should always tell the truth or decline to speak. A lie will damage you're your case more than the truth.


The suspect appears before the prosecutor when the police present the evidence. If the prosecutor concurs, he/she must then obtain a warrant of detention from a judge within 24 hours. Again, the suspect would appear before the judge when the warrant is requested. A case could be dropped at either of these stages for lack of evidence. Bail is the exception rather than the rule in Japan and is virtually unheard of for foreigners. If you are arrested in Japan you will in all likelihood remain in jail until you are indicted or released. Suspects are usually kept at the local jail where they were arrested and generally eat the same Japanese style food as the other prisoners.

If the judge agrees there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed, the court will issue an initial 10 day detention order to permit the police to continue their investigation. At the end of this 10 day period, the prosecutor can request a second 10 day detention period to continue the investigation further. The suspect will normally appear before the judge at each of these hearings and may be asked to testify on his/her own behalf. At the end of this 20-23 day detent ion period, the prosecutor must either ask the court for a formal indictment or release the prisoner. Of course, an indictment could be sought sooner if enough evidence is readily available or the prisoner could be released sooner if adequate evidence is not forthcoming.

A police officer or a public prosecutor will request that you place your signature/seal on the last page of your written statement, which is written in accordance with your testimony after you have been questioned by the officials. The statement is evidence to certify that what you have said under oath at the time of questioning is true, so please read the text carefully or confirm with the aid of an interpreter to find all errors and confirm the contents of the document before signing. If you find an error or a point you do not understand, please ask that it be explained to you and rectify it if necessary. Do never put your signature or seal on any documents if no aid is available from an interpreter or if you do not fully understand the text.

Under Japanese law, if the judges have a reasonable doubt as to the defendant's guilt they are obliged to render a verdict of innocent. If found innocent, the defendant must be compensated for his detention by the Japanese Government. If found guilty, those guilty of relatively minor offenses may receive a sentence of imprisonment whose execution is suspended for one to five years. This is possible if the sentence to be suspended is less than three years in prison or a fine less than 200,000 Yen, and at least five years have elapsed since the completion or remission of any previous sentence. If an individual receiving a suspended sentence is convicted of no other offenses in Japan during the time of suspension, the original sentence would be remitted. If, however, they were to commit another offense in Japan during the time of suspension, they would have to serve both the initial sentence and the new sentence. Those receiving heavier sentences will serve their sentence or pay their fine in Japan. If an individual has strong ties to Japan and a valid visa status, he/she may be allowed to remain in Japan after receiving a suspended sentence, if a Japanese national acts as his/her sponsor with the Immigration authorities. Those without strong ties to Japan and whose visa status has expired would be deported after their conviction. Similarly, an individual convicted and sentenced to actual imprisonment would have the same options after release from prison. Those with strong ties and a willing sponsor in Japan could be permitted to remain while others would be deported after their release from prison. Deportation in Japan is at the deportee's own expense.

If a sentence includes a fine as well as imprisonment, the prisoner will be detained until the fine is paid. If they are financially unable to pay the fine, they could substitute additional imprisonment for the money at a rate of one day's extra imprisonment for each 5,000 yen of the fine.

After the appeal process is exhausted, prisoners are transferred from the detention prison to the prison where they will serve their sentence. Male foreign prisoners in Japan are generally housed at Fuchu Prison in Tokyo while females are usually housed at Tochigi Prison in Tochigi prefecture. The number of foreign inmates is increasing yearly, and at present, more than 500 foreigners representing over 40 nationalities are found in the foreign inmate population.

The prisons in Japan imposes a strict, military-like discipline in order to maintain the security, order, and safety of the institution and its inmates. The prisoners wear prison-issue uniforms and there is a prescribed way to walk, talk, eat, sit and sleep. Foreign prisoners are allowed to practice their religion within a limit.

The above information is, as I understand it, accurate. But since I'm not a specialist in legal matters I can take no legal responsibility for what is written. This is only meant as a general guide. For detailed information, please ask at your embassy, local police authorities.