Japan's autopsy rate woefully low


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.

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talk about getting away with murder. this is shameful and should be addressed with more seriousness.

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means that homicide might be going undetected

ya think?

It boils down basically to a question of manpower. Experts are few and thinly scattered across the country.

Sounds like the same excuse they use for turning away people at hospitals. "Not enough qualified staff"

I call BS. They don't do autopsies because they don't want to. If they did autopsies on even half of the dead bodies cops dealt with, it would reveal the horrible incompetence of the police here. Japan would no longer be "safety Japan" and the cops would have a much lower solve/conviction rate. That just wouldn't do.

Murderers are only caught if

1) They confess

2) There is sufficient media or other pressure on the police to actually do some police work

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Hello, I am this boy's father.

Oh, hi.

BTW, what did he die from?

We don't know. Does it matter? He is dead.


Guess this conversation is held quite often in Japan. Of course, having a populace trained to not ask questions or rock the boat surely helps the powers-that-be. It is all part of "The Way" and truly sad if you look at the big picture. It also supports a theory of mine that a majority of people in Japan are in fact quite lazy. This story is a perfect example. Asking questions and demanding answers will only lead to more work for others - god forbid that happened!

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This kind of shakes one's faith in the justice system, doesn't it? Yes, I have heard people say that the police forces are corrupt and don't do anything, but people say that sort of thing in every country so I just usually ignore comments like that. But, if it's true, and this certainly brings to question whether they are doing their job or not, then the ultimate question is who (if any one person or group) is "making" people train for and perform necessary jobs for the infrasturcture of the country. Is there like so mysterious clan of people hiding in the shadows somewhere that prescribes the careers for each and every person, or is it left to chance like a lottery? How about advertising for the position and paying a decent wage, that might work.

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This kind of shakes one's faith in the justice system, doesn't it?

Wait wait wait! You had faith in the justice system?!?

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Of course there is a lack of funding and manpower. But a cynical mind might also notice that it is quite convenient to perform so few autopsies as it keeps the murder rate low and conviction rate high (99% in Japan!).

2 ( +2 / -0 )

It doesn't have to be murder... it could also be fraud. Grandma is 98 years old and has be heard from for a while. When they go to investigate, grandma just died. But in actually, she has be dead for 20 years and kept on ice at the nursing home where the monthly government checks have been split between the home and the family. So maybe the official statistic on longevity in Japan is wrong? After all, when they went to acknowledge the oldest person in Japan not too long ago, they found out that the person died 50 years ago and the family just kept the mummified body so they would keep getting the monthly checks.

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Just to reiterate my earlier post, the lack of autopsies is down to the Japanese attitude to death. Only the buraku-min have traditionally dealt with the dead and it is a relatively taboo subject. For a high status position like a doctor to deal with dead people is something of a contradiction. I suspect the average Japanese would choose becoming a dentist over becoming a doctor who deals exclusively with the dead (not trying to knock dentists).

The Nishi Nishi Shimbun must know this, but it is the elephant in the room.

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@Ah_So I read something similar a few years ago. Also that the suicide rate was higher than it should be because doctors would just label possible homicide deaths as suicides because of the reluctance to do autopsies.

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A brief view of the real Japan. I suspect this link will be buried soon.

Japan isn't a developed country socially. It's very nice and beautiful and all, but in spite of success in other areas remains a long standing caste based society and this is proof of that, and the consequences.

For all its technology, if people believe they are above such things such as autopsies then it will stay at 11%, and probably drop from there not rise. Raising the rate would mean people want to change. At 11% that isn't even trying. More like couldn't be avoided. That does not inspire change.

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Japan isn't a developed country socially.

I agree, and would add that all sorts of other services are absent or undermanned here: regular fire inspections, safety inspections, monitoring, drug approval testing, certification, etc. etc.

If there's anything good about Fukushima, it has made the world realize that Japan is still in a state of "catch up" with the West, seriously lagging in many important areas that underpin a developed economy.

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I just asked my J-husband about it because I think it's suspicious about that J-soccer player that just died of a heart attack, Matsuda. We saw a little clip of an interview with an "expert", a doctor who said that it isn't unusual for young people to have heart attacks and die. And that was all of the interview!! So my husband asked me why they should do an autopsy. We watch CSI, Bones and all those police shows, but he still asks me WHY? I think they should perform an autopsy - maybe they can learn something... maybe the coach and the training were at fault - oh no - a lawsuit might happen...

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Another shame is that since family have to agree to autopsies, you can murder your relative in a hard to detect way and then deny the police the right to autopsy them.

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these murky times,

What murky times?

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