People walk past a screen showing a news program featuring Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn in Tokyo. Photo: AFP / Toshifumi Kitamura
Larger than life: Following his November 2018 arrest, people walk past a screen showing a news program featuring a pre-arrest image of Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn in Tokyo. Photo: AFP / Toshifumi Kitamura

This article is the first of two in a series.

Japan’s tawdry legal fight with Carlos Ghosn, the ousted boss of Nissan and Renault, entered a new phase last week when Tokyo prosecutors formally charged Mike and Peter Taylor, the father and son alleged to have helped Ghosn jump bail in a sensational escape from Japan in late December 2019.

The prosecutors tipped their hand about their narrative several days earlier by leaking a report to the Japanese media that the Taylors had admitted to conspiring with Ghosn’s wife Carole – who is also wanted by authorities in Tokyo – to help her husband flee the country and find his way to Lebanon, which has no extradition treaty with Japan.

Ghosn, now 67, is a Lebanese national. Brazilian-born, he is also a Brazilian and French citizen. He reportedly entered Lebanon with a French passport.

Earlier, the prosecutors had leaked hotel security camera images showing Ghosn’s youngest daughter, Maya, greeting Peter Taylor in front of his hotel, the Grand Hyatt Tokyo, on the day of Ghosn’s escape, December 29, and hand-delivering two suitcases.

Court records also show that the prosecutors are the source of leaked news of a US$500,000 cryptocurrency payment from Ghosn’s son, Anthony, to Peter’s company, Promote Fox LLC.

If we are to believe Tokyo prosecutors, the Ghosn family are as notorious as the Corleone crime family in the movie epic, The Godfather.

Of course, this latest leak is proof again that the prosecutors don’t mind breaking the law to get their story out. According to the National Public Service Act, they are not permitted to “leak secrets in an official capacity on the job.”

But they do when it suits them. And it has suited them since the day, November 19, 2018, when they tipped off journalists about his arrest and let them film a highly dramatized “evidence-gathering” raid of his corporate jet at a Tokyo airport.

Thus began a daily deluge of negative media coverage, much originating from illegal leaks, as Ghosn’s image was transformed from national hero – the savior who arrived to rescue Nissan in 1999, when it was close to bankruptcy – to supervillain.

So, the weekend before last, we were told that the Taylors had admitted to working with Carole Ghosn to spring her husband and spirit him to Lebanon. (The news outlet in question provided, without context, her maiden name, Nahas. US citizen Carole Ghosn is Lebanese-born.)

This picture taken in Tokyo on March 2, 2021, shows detention center personnel waiting for the arrival of a bus transporting former US special forces member Michael Taylor and his son Peter, who allegedly staged the operation to help former Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn flee Japan in 2019, and who had been extradited from the US to face charges. Photo: AFP/Charly Triballeau

We also were informed that the Taylors – 60-year-old Mike, a former decorated member of the US Army’s Green Berets special forces unit, and 28-year-old Peter – had made some sort of declaration that they had “not been tortured” and that the Japanese criminal justice system “is legitimate” – statements I find reminiscent of the “Hanoi Hilton,” where American prisoners of war were coerced into making false confessions for propaganda purposes.

And, yes, Japan’s system of hitojicho shiho – hostage justice – is on trial. Whether Tokyo prosecutors and the Japanese Justice Ministry like it or not, their abusive treatment of Ghosn – and of his American former colleague Greg Kelly, who is now on trial in Japan for his alleged role in helping Ghosn get a larger retirement bonus – is a stark reminder that Japan has never adhered to the constitutional reforms imposed upon it by American occupation forces following World War II.

The legacy of Japan’s Tokkō, or “thought police,” is alive and well, particularly with respect to interrogations. As one veteran Japanese journalist told me, “Japan really hasn’t progressed that far from 1940, when people were hauled off the street for their political views and put in prison.”

The good news is my sources reported that the Taylors are not being tortured and the US embassy in Tokyo is monitoring their treatment – after having failed to adequately protect Kelly, who was tortured at the hands of his Japanese captors.

Don’t take my word for the part about torture. Take the word of Roger Wicker, the senior US senator from the state of Mississippi, which hosts a large Nissan plant. Wicker spoke about Kelly in September on the Senate floor.

“The plan required framing Mr Kelly for bogus financial crimes,” the senator said. Kelly “was lured to Japan, lied to and, upon his arrival, arrested on those trumped-up charges, then treated with cruelty by the Japanese authorities from day one.”

Kelly was kept in solitary confinement for 36 days. “In the dead of winter,” Wicker said, the prisoner “had no heat. He was interrogated daily for several hours at a time without the presence of a defense counsel – a basic legal right. His requests for medical attention were refused, and when they did eventually allow him to get neck surgery, it was too late and predictably his physical condition worsened.”

Greg Kelly, former representative director of Nissan Motor Company, arrives at the Tokyo District Court ahead of his first public trial session on September 15, 2020. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

The plan was to get Kelly to testify against Ghosn and then send him on his way, back to his home in Brentwood, Tennessee.

No, I didn’t ask the Tokyo prosecutor’s office for a comment. But I did reach out to the Japanese embassy in Washington seeking comment about a UN report that Ghosn’s detention represented an “extrajudicial abuse of process” by the prosecutors and that Ghosn was entitled to compensation under international law.

The embassy’s response, predictably, was to whine about the findings. “It is very regrettable,” an embassy spokesman declared, “that the UN working group reached such a conclusion solely based on the one-sided opinion of Mr Ghosn. The views of the working group are far from acceptable and Japan has expressed its objection.”

Of course, it would express its objection. But Japan’s handling of prisoner interrogations has also been criticized by organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

A 2015 Amnesty International report, submitted as evidence in the Taylors’ extradition case, concluded that the Japanese justice system “continues to facilitate torture and other ill-treatment to extract confessions during interrogation.”

Human Rights Watch, also from the court record, declared that Japan’s “hostage justice” system “violates the human rights guaranteed by the Constitution of Japan, including physical freedom, the right to remain silent, the right to a fair trial [and] the prohibition of torture caused by prolonged detention and interrogation to force a confession.”

It is time for the Japanese government to stop lying.

Back to the Ghosn case 

Ghosn, in a book published in French last year, suggested that what he described as a plot to remove him from leadership had arisen out of fears on the part of nationalistic Japanese in both the company and the government of an increase in foreign management involvement – by shareholder and alliance partner Renault.

Nissan executives knew Ghosn was under pressure via the Renault board from the French government, a part-owner of Renault, to make the companies’ alliance permanent. His take in the book is that although, in fact, he was strongly opposed to political interference from the French side, Japanese executives and bureaucrats were determined to topple him, thus removing any chance he could follow orders and shake things up.

Their longer-term plan, which they accomplished, he said, was to “re-Japanize” Nissan – restore the independence the automaker had relinquished in 1999 by letting Renault come and bail it out.

Regardless of whether Ghosn really contemplated a management shakeup (I heard from multiple sources that he did), I do believe Ghosn’s arrest and that of Kelly represented a pre-emptive strike by some in Nissan’s Japanese management – a “boardroom coup,” as Wicker charged in his Senate speech.

Nissan and the Tokyo prosecutors’ office made two critical mistakes. First, they did not anticipate how truly tough Ghosn is – to be able to withstand 130 days of solitary confinement and extended interrogations of four, six, even eight hours per day, shiver in his unheated cell during the dead of winter in Japan without proper clothing and still not break. He didn’t confess.

They also either failed to consider or minimized the fact that Kelly had a powerful ally in Tokyo. The American ambassador from 2017 to mid-2019, Bill Haggerty calls Nashville – 12 miles from Kelly’s home in Brentwood – home. And since January, Haggerty has been one of two US senators from Tennessee, having succeeded Lamar Alexander. He is working behind the scenes to free Kelly, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. 

Carlos Ghosn, half a decade ago when he was riding high as boss of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, shown starring in a screen presentation to the news media during the 2016 Paris Motor Show on September 29, 2016. Photo: AFP / Mathieu Thomasset / Hans Lucas.

Alexander, who as governor in the early 1980s brought Nissan to Tennessee to set up its first US auto plant, also supported Kelly’s cause, while raising questions about why Tokyo prosecutors charged only the foreigners Kelly and Ghosn.

One irony is that Kelly couldn’t have committed the crime he was accused of – falsifying financial reports in regards to Ghosn’s compensation package.

First, he wasn’t Nissan’s treasurer, and thus didn’t control disbursements.

Second, two higher-ranked Japanese executives, Toshiyuki Shiga, who was chief operating officer when the board first reviewed the package, and Hiroto Saikawa, who became co-chief executive with Ghosn in 2016, signed off on the package. Yet they weren’t arrested and charged. Nor was anyone in Nissan’s financial and auditing organization.

But most importantly, Kelly, like Ghosn, doesn’t read, write or speak Japanese. Financial reports are submitted in Japanese after being reviewed and approved by Nissan’s board, accountants, internal auditors and lawyers – all people who read, write and speak Japanese.

It didn’t happen the way Tokyo prosecutors have alleged. They have misled the public about the case from the beginning. Kelly’s trial is a kangaroo court. And Ghosn’s trial, had he stayed in Japan, would have been a kangaroo court. The way accusations were made in secret, it already qualifies as a star chamber.

NEXT: In Ghosn Case the Taylors are the fall guys

Roger Schreffler is a veteran correspondent for Ward’s Automotive and a former president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. He notes that his usual work is straight reporting rather than opinion writing but says that, in this case, “I’ve taken sides, and must declare so up front. In my opinion, it’s the prosecutors who should be on trial.