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.© Japan Today