Saturday, June 18, 2011

World: The American Crime

Seven daring but inept Tokyo thugs planned a kidnaping that would rock the nation. Their intended victim: Emperor Hirohito's youngest daughter, the former Princess Suga. She was to be held for $138,888, the biggest ransom in Japanese history. Disguised as a meter reader, one plotter entered and cased the princess' house. The gang moved in for the snatch three times, only to have something go awry. Before they could make a fourth try, the police were tipped off and collared the gang, building an airtight case with full confessions. Yet last spring the accused were convicted only of trespassing and illegal possession of weapons. They got mild sentences of eight months to three years.

Unlike the U.S., where the sentence might be death, Japan is so lighthearted about kidnaping that sentences for the most successful snatches (unless they involve murder) seldom exceed six months. Japanese law is modeled on the German criminal code of 1907, which viewed kidnaping as a minor crime because it was so rare. But in postwar Japan, the soft law and a yen for yen have sharply increased what the French call "the American crime." Over a ten-year period, Japan recorded 4,728 kidnap cases, and the maximum penalty of ten years was given only 2% of the perpetrators.

For a while, it all seemed an unpleasant but harmless game, since the vast majority of the victims got home unscathed. But in two grisly cases last year, one victim was raped and murdered, and no trace has ever been found of the other. Clumsy police work encouraged cries for reform. One of the judges in the Suga case lamented, "Our criminal-code statutes are sadly out of line with our sense of values."

The Diet last week approved far stiffer laws, including a kidnap penalty of three years to life, and the country's first kidnap-conspiracy rap (one month to two years). But if kidnapers give their victim a break, they will still get a break from the law: those who surrender and do not harm their victims will have their sentences halved. With time off for good behavior, a kidnaper sentenced to life may be sprung in seven years.