Media watch: Victim of crime seeks compensation the hard way

When a person is the victim of theft or fraud, it is often difficult for them to recoup their losses, even if the perpetrator of the crime is caught and punished. According to a Jan. 12 article in the Asahi Shimbun, one man has taken a novel approach to this problem. The man, who is from Okayama Prefecture, claims to be the victim of what we assume is fraud, though the circumstances of the case as explained by the Asahi raise questions with regard to criminal intent. 

Eight years ago, the man was approached by a woman who created very realistic dolls as artworks. She wanted to stage exhibitions of her work but didn’t have the money, so she asked the man if he could lend her the necessary funds. He did and she put on the exhibitions at various places throughout Japan. Over the years, however, she neglected to pay him back and the IOUs piled up, amounting to “tens of millions of yen” in debt. Then, in 2019 she was arrested and subsequently convicted and sent to prison. 

The victim sued the woman for ¥20 million, which was less than the total amount he had lent her, and while the court found in his favor, he received no compensation because the woman, who was in prison, was broke. So he sued again, but this time asked the court to allow him to confiscate the money the woman was making in prison through her state-mandated work assignments. Since prisoners make way below minimum wage when they work in Japanese prisons, the man, if successful, would never be able to recoup his losses this way, but he said that his reasons were different; that he was confiscating her pay so that she would face up to her crime. 

This prison pay system is called “work reward,” and according to the Asahi pays between ¥7.7 and ¥55.5 per hour. The woman, whose prison work assignment is not described in the article, makes on average ¥4,537 a month. 

In September 2021, the Yamaguchi District Court rejected the man’s suit, saying that confiscating the work reward means “taking money necessary for life away from the prisoner,” which could lead to an impoverished situation when she is finally released that might compel her to “commit new crimes.” On appeal, the Hiroshima High Court upheld this decision.

The suit finally reached the Supreme Court’s petit bench last August, which also upheld the lower courts’ rulings, saying that one of the purposes of work reward is to stimulate the prisoner’s “eagerness” to work, as well as to assure that the prisoner has some money in the bank when they are released. In that regard, the money is essential to a criminal’s rehabilitation. Moreover, the right to receive this money cannot be transferred to a third party. 

The plaintiff’s lawyer told Asahi that the court’s ruling was “not convincing,” since the suit is not really about the money itself, but rather about the idea that the woman would work to pay back what she owed the plaintiff. An assistant professor of criminal law told the Asahi that the problem of victims not being compensated for their losses often comes up in legal debates and cases like these, and that courts need to discuss the matter more realistically. In addition, work reward pay should be increased, and probably could be except that the public would probably disapprove, since the general opinion is that convicted criminals are supposed to be punished in prison, not allowed the opportunity to make money. In fact, the Prison Law was revised last year in order to allow victims of crimes to communicate with imprisoned perpetrators in order to change their attitude toward their crime and provide something in return, which could be an apology or compensation in some form.

Based on the information provided in the article, it’s difficult to figure out whether this revision in any way applies to the case described. We tried looking for a more detailed explanation of the case in other media but could not find any. Our first question is: Why was the woman arrested? Based on the story, it sounds as if the man lent her the money of his own free will (and probably knew her at least as an acquaintance), and she was simply unable to pay him back. Since she used the money to do what she told him she would do with it—put on exhibitions of her work—it doesn’t sound like a case of fraud in the classic sense. So obviously there is more to the criminal part of the story than what the Asahi published. Japan does not have debtors’ prisons, and while a person who lends money to another can sue that person for compensation, the police would not normally be involved. Also, the original court’s judgment that the woman might slide back into criminal activity if she were deprived of her work reward money sounds strange: She would become a debtor again? Many people in Japan are in debt and have not been imprisoned for it. 

The second question is the motive of the victim, which he says is to make the perpetrator own up to her crime by giving up the money she earns in prison, which is an odd way of doing it. No mention is made of the woman’s position at all—of whether she pleaded guilty in the original criminal trial, or whether she expressed remorse. The implication is that she did not, and we often see in criminal cases victims who are not satisfied with the outcomes of trials even when the defendant is found guilty and incarcerated (or worse). They want the perpetrator to express remorse in a way that is satisfactory to the victim, which may be impossible depending on the feelings of the victim. The sincerity of an apology or expression of remorse is often difficult to gauge. In this particular case, the man has tried to monetize that remorse in a way that is even more difficult to gauge.

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