TOKYO -- The public prosecutor's office in the northern Japan prefecture of Niigata declined a 94-year-old woman's request for trial records from a court that allegedly convicted her of disrespecting the Imperial Household because of her Catholic faith soon after World War II.
The Niigata District Public Prosecutors Office explained to the Mainichi Shimbun that "records are not available for viewing after their retention period." However, the prosecutors permitted the bereaved families of two other women who were convicted along with Mihoko Kanazawa access to their trial records. Legal experts say the prosecutor's office should respect an individual's right to control their own information and give them access to such records.
Kanazawa is from the city of Joetsu in Niigata Prefecture along the Sea of Japan. According to Special Higher Police's record and other sources, she was arrested under the lese-majeste provision of the Penal Code in April 1944 on suspicion of "violating the dignity of the Imperial Household by regarding Christ as absolute" when attending the local Takada Catholic Church.
Kanazawa along with German priest Franz Sauerborn and two female members of the church presumably faced prosecution for infringing upon the now defunct public security preservation law at the end of the same year. The notorious 1925 law was abused by authorities in violation of basic human rights before the end of WWII.
The 94-year-old said that she "was released on bail, but was summoned after World War II (that ended in August 1945) to the prefectural capital of Niigata and put on trial." Yet, the case remained clouded as records have not been disclosed.
Meanwhile, family members of the two female Christians came to know that the court's written judgments were stored at the Niigata District Public Prosecutors Office. They requested access to the rulings and their copies, and were granted the right to view. It became clear that the two were convicted and given a suspended sentence on Sept. 1, 1945 at the Niigata District Court.
Documents on the ruling remain undisclosed for the Catholic priest. However, it is written in a report from the then Niigata police department to the home ministry, seized by the U.S., that he was also convicted and given a suspended sentence on the same day. The public security preservation law was abolished in October 1946.
The Niigata District Public Prosecutors Office said in a 2016 inquiry from the Mainichi, that they "could not find" any record of Kanazawa's conviction. Despite this, officials there began to explain this year that they "do not have a written judgment but do have a case file." She demanded access to copies of the documents through her lawyer in August this year, but as of Oct. 26 had been rejected by the prosecutor's office.
Kanazawa's trial records can only be preserved for a maximum of 50 years according to the Act on Final Criminal Case Records. The prosecutors office had kept parts of her records for internal reference after the retention period.
The Niigata District Public Prosecutors Office's official in charge of records had consistently explained in interviews since 2016 that documents saved beyond their retention periods do not qualify for public access because there is no legal requirement.
However, it granted access to the written judgments on the other two women to their bereaved families. It is possible that access was denied for Kanazawa because her request was for a case file, not for written judgments. An official at the office said they do not explain why Kanazawa's request for access was denied.
Trial records are maintained by the prosecution, and there is no established rule for public access after their retention periods, which are three to 100 years for judgments, and 50 years for other records.
Professor Masahiro Sogabe of Kyoto University Graduate School of Law, a constitutional and information law specialist, questions the prosecution's interpretation that trial records are not subject to public access after their retention periods. "They should make an interpretation based on Article 13 of the Constitution that protects the right to the preservation of personal information, and accept the woman's request," said the professor.
Sogabe also pointed out that the records of criminal trials, while containing a lot of private information, are records on the use of public authority from questioning to trial, and thus have high public value. "It is questionable that the existing system for public access to such records is based on these considerations. A thorough review is required for the system."
What happened in the Takada Catholic Church case is indistinct. Even the punishment for priest Sauerborn (1904-1989) differs from record to record. Joetsu city records say it was a three-year prison sentence suspended for four years, but home ministry records say it was a two-year jail term suspended for three years. Getting to the bottom of the case requires records of criminal trials on the case.
Priest Mario Canducci, who served for 30 years at the Takada church, wonders why Kanazawa has not been given access to her own records. "The records on tough experiences undergone by citizens are necessary to think about democracy," said the 84-year-old priest.
(Japanese original by Ken Aoshima, City News Department)