A Japanese pedestrian walks past a giant TV screen showing an angry Carlos Ghosn. Photo: AFP

The blistering press conference held in Beirut on Wednesday night by Carlos Ghosn, the former chairman and CEO of Nissan and current fugitive from Japanese justice, seized the attention of Japan’s chattering classes – despite taking place after 10 at night.

In it, Ghosn a formerly famed “Mr Fix It” executive of global standing, asserted he was framed for crimes he never committed, by a conspiracy of Nissan executives, prosecutors and government officials.

Their aim, he said, was to ensure Renault did not take over Nissan and their tactic was to get rid of him.

“In that they succeeded,” Ghosn, who fled Japan in a daring escape that reportedly involved a bullet train, a musical instrument case and a private aircraft, conceded.

With Ghosn having escaped the reach of Japanese courts, Japan’s court of public opinion is now in session – and in front of that body, the executive is faring better than he may have imagined. While mainstream media and Tokyo officialdom sniff at his allegations, other Japanese are asking hard questions about customary Japanese judicial practices.

Abe gets a pass

Hours before Ghosn’s press conference, Japanese media – much inclined to bow before the powers that be – reported Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s apparent regrets about the Ghosn affair.

Over dinner with Japanese corporate moguls, Abe said: “Originally, I had wanted Nissan to deal with [Ghosn’s case] internally,” according to the influential Mainichi Shimbun.

That prompted an immediate wave of ridicule toward Abe on Japanese social media – but may have come to Ghosn’s attention.

Much anticipation had hovered over whether Ghosn would name names – including those of Abe Cabinet members at his press conference. He did name a handful of Nissan executives, some with well-known political connections. However, he declined to finger cabinet officials, citing relations between Beirut and Tokyo.

And Abe may well have breathed a sigh of relief when Ghosn said: “I don’t think Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was involved.”

Ghosn v Japanese media

Immediately before the press conference, there had been an uproar among Japanese media over the apparent exclusion of Japanese press from Ghosn’s conference. Only three Japanese outlets were admitted.

Confronted on the alleged exclusion by a Japanese reporter, Ghosn pointed out that the reporter asking the question was, in fact, Japanese.

Ghosn went on to reprimand Japanese media for reporting leaks from the Prosecutors Office that discredited him, without fact-checking. “In Japan, it is illegal for the prosecutors to leak information to the press, yet they do it all the time,” Ghosn said, a serious allegation.

Few Japanese media reported the remark.

After Ghosn had finished, Tokyo’s Minister of Justice held a post-midnight press conference. The following morning, major newspapers ran headlines along the lines of, “Japanese government blows off fugitive Ghosn’s ‘baseless accusations’.”

The Mainichi Shimbun summed things up: “The Japanese government, prosecutors and Nissan Motor Co officials largely shrugged off Thursday claims made by the automaker’s former chairman Carlos Ghosn at his first press conference after fleeing Japan, saying he failed to clear his name.”

Without apparent irony, the article quoted an anonymous prosecutor.

Is Japanese justice just?

If Ghosn aimed to ignite debate over Japan’s criminal justice system he was tremendously successful: Immediately after his press conference, “Japan’s Criminal Justice System” trended on Japanese Twitter, generating more than 10,000 tweets.

Central to Ghosn’s case has been his own experience – an epic saga of pre-trial detention, bail, re-arrest, then bail once more – and finally his daring escape from the country in a musical instrument case smuggled aboard a private aircraft.

Above all, the star executive has slammed the common Japanese practice of pre-trial detention as a violation of human rights.

“Guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant and basic human rights are denied,” he said.

Right-wing online commentators – some employed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party – have rushed to Japan’s defense, vigorously defending a prosecution that has a 99.4% conviction rate in the cases it takes on.

But Ghosn has scored deft points by saying that he loves Japan, and wants it to become a country where people had the right to a fair trial. Surprising numbers of Japanese now seem to be siding with Ghosn in his criticism of both judicial and journalistic mores.

Getting behind Ghosn

“The Japanese media is so leaning to the side of the prosecutors that I am dumbstruck,” wrote one Japanese tweeter. “Why don’t they have anyone on TV who suggests the system be changed? Holding someone who is presumed innocent for days and weeks without a lawyer present and interrogating them – how is that just or humane?”

It is not just tweeters. Kyodo News, Japan’s leading news wire, published a thoughtful analysis on how medieval Japan’s criminal justice system appears to the rest of the world.

Kyodo alleged that while Japan has ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it fails to observe the standards puts forth. It pointed out that presumption of innocence is a facade in the court system, long pre-trial detainments are routine and lawyers are not allowed to be present during interrogation.

The story also described a notorious embarrassment in 2013 when Japan’s human rights envoy to the United Nations resigned after a near-hysterical outburst.

During a meeting in Geneva, a foreign delegate had pointed out problems with Japanese criminal justice, igniting the ire of Japan’s envoy, Hideaki Ueda. “Certainly Japan is not in the Middle Ages!” he yelled. “We are one of the most advanced countries in this field!”

The envoy dug himself in deeper when – in response to giggles – he yelled: “Why are you laughing? Shut up! Shut up!”

There were similar guffaws at a briefing held by the Ministry of Justice this week, during which Japan’s legal system was vigorously defended. And professionals in that system are now speaking up.

Last Saturday, Ghosn’s lawyer Takashi Takano published a blog post that was so well-received that the government fired back two retorts on Sunday. The post now has 18,000 likes and 4,071 “applauses.”

In the entry, Takano tells Ghosn: “Unfortunately, criminal defendants cannot expect fair trials in this country. Judges are not independent. They are part of the bureaucracy. However, many Japanese are unaware of this.”

Takano concluded with his personal feeling of betrayal – by a skewed criminal justice system in which defendants’ rights are severely limited.

With Ghosn clearly playing hardball, how long the affair will play out cannot be known. But the conversation it has started on the Japanese justice system could be its biggest legacy.

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