Prior to his spectacular downfall, Nissan Motor Co's then-President and Chief Executive Officer Carlos Ghosn speaks at a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo July 17, 2014. Photo: AFP / Hitoshi Yamada / NurPhoto)

So Carlos Ghosn flew the coop – slipping out of Japan and turning up in Lebanon – while on bail and awaiting trial for alleged financial misconduct during his tenure at Nissan. One hardly blames him given Japanese prosecutors’ 99% conviction rate.

Having spent over four months in detention and daily interrogations – up to 16 hours a day without a lawyer – might also have soured Ghosn on Japanese justice.

Reports vary about his escape, and some versions are straight out of a spy movie. This all may or may not clarify itself. But getting out of Japan undetected is not quite the same thing as slipping across the Bolivian border on a dark evening. It takes some thought and a little help.

Not surprisingly, speculation abounds that the Japanese government wasn’t sad to see Ghosn take up residence elsewhere – and thus avoid a trial that further exposes Japan’s curious, some might say medieval, justice system to international scrutiny.

That’s not exactly good PR while Japan puts on its best face for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. Indeed, fear of embarrassment is the great motivator in Japan – at all levels of society, but especially among the ruling class.

Reaction to Ghosn’s escape, from Japanese officialdom and the local media, ranges from apparent bafflement to outrage. Some commentators even claim Ghosn has dissed Japan’s justice system, which is benevolent and infallible.

What’s not to like about free lodging and 99% conviction rates? But even China and North Korea will settle for 96% rates – not wanting to appear ridiculous.

So was the Japanese government complicit – perhaps just by turning a blind eye? That is an interesting scenario. But watch the Shinzo Abe administration’s behavior in coming days and one can draw one’s own conclusions.

What to look for

First, does Prime Minister Abe himself address the matter publicly?

Next, does Japan cut its foreign aid to Lebanon? And restrict Japanese companies’ freedom to trade or invest with Lebanon?

Will the Ministry of Foreign Affairs call in Lebanon’s ambassador and formally protest? One wonders. Maybe it is just coincidence Japan’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs was in Lebanon (a country without an extradition treaty with Japan) and meeting with the president a little over a week before Ghosn fled. But maybe not.

And since Ghosn reportedly flew via Turkey, will the Turkish ambassador be called on the carpet next week when the New Year’s holiday ends?

Monitoring cameras authorities had placed at Carlos Ghosn’s Tokyo house to ride herd on Ghosn, no longer of any use following his flight to Beirut. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Also, pay attention to whether Tokyo goes after Ghosn.

“Goes after” means: Does Tokyo obtain an Interpol “red notice” on him? And does Japan formally request the assistance of the United States, the EU, and other nations – such as Brazil where Ghosn has a residence – in grabbing Ghosn if and when he shows up there?

And while they are at it, maybe Japan will request that Ghosn be placed on official “sanctioned invidiviual” lists, such as America’s Office of Foreign Assets Control list.

Of course, asking the Americans for help would be awkward since Tokyo took Greg Kelly, an American Nissan executive, hostage at the same time it lured Ghosn to Tokyo for arrest. It is still pursuing a case against Kelly alleging conspiracy with Ghosn while they were at Nissan.

And let’s see if Japan targets the air services company that flew Ghosn out of Japan – and targets all the other parties involved in the operation that Tokyo can identify. Once again, let’s see some red notices and requests for assistance.

Watch to see if Tokyo sanctions the local “fixed base operator”– the company at the airport that handles private jets and passengers.  Maybe start by arresting the local director for conspiracy or for aiding and abetting a crime – and give him the Ghosn treatment.

But here’s the real truth teller:  Are the following people fired in short order?

  • the director of the National Police Agency
  • the head of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department
  • the minster of justice
  • the chief of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors’ Office

Even a ritual humiliation and bowing in front of the camera – and a few crocodile tears – might sort of convince some skeptics.

Depending on what happens regarding the above, one can draw one’s own conclusions.

It’s ironic that a guy flees to Beirut to be free. Beirut is where Hezbollah terrorists kept Western hostages shackled in basements for years back in the 80’s and 90’s.

The difference between the Tokyo Detention House and a Beirut basement? There is some, though to Ghosn (and Kelly) it might have seemed just a matter of degree. And Hezbollah might have seemed a bit more reasonable than Tokyo cops and prosecutors.

Even friends of Japan catch an uncomfortable glimpse in the Ghosn case of an underlying streak of racism in Japan – and particularly among its elite class. Just scratch the surface a little, or have a foreign company propose taking over the wrong Japanese company – as Ghosn was planning to do with Nissan.

Make no mistake, Japan is a nice country. Indeed, it’s nicer than most. But sometimes one can only shake one’s head.

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