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Little Recourse for Victims of Crime in Japan

SNA (Tokyo) – Despite being considered one of the safest cities in the world, the fear of falling victim to a violent crime is real for many in Tokyo. Besides suffering from the initial crime itself, some victims are unable to receive the help they need from the city’s law enforcement and legal system, and are dissuaded from pursuing the justice they deserve.

In SNA’s recent interview with assault victim Cliff Woolley, he related his experience with the justice system and the miseries he suffered as a result of its alleged flaws and prejudices.

Woolley, an American citizen, is a father of three and former professional musician with a history of social work in Cambodia. In the past, he toured US medical facilities during the Vietnam War, using his musical talent to boost soldiers’ morale. Additionally, he worked closely with the Japanese police to prevent the spread of digital piracy in his previous job at Paramount Pictures and Universal Studios. He has resided in Japan for over forty years.

The Night of the Assault

Around 9pm on February 8, 2006, Woolley was returning from a tavern that was near his home in the Meguro district of Tokyo. As he was walking down a narrow, sloped side street in its pedestrian lane, he was hit by a car from behind and knocked unconscious. According to Woolley, the last thing he remembered before waking up in an ambulance was the sound of a horn.

The events that followed were described to police by a young couple exiting a nearby restaurant. When questioned, they stated that they had heard screaming and saw a foreign man lying in the street. They then watched the driver, a Japanese man, exit the vehicle and kick the then-58 year old repeatedly in the head, and then drive away.

What happened that evening marked the beginning of Woolley’s long nightmare with the Japanese legal system. In Woolley’s account, the physical and mental toll is something that he will bear for the rest of his life, and he continues his pursuit for justice more than a decade later.

An “Unjust” System

Woolley is deeply dissatisfied, in the first place, with the police investigation, which he feels was bordering on incompetent.

“There were so many gaps in their procedure that they were thoroughly trained to implement that they didn’t do,” stated Woolley when asked about the police report.

While many details in Woolley’s police report, such as the nature of his injuries, were omitted, others, Woolley believes, were falsified to favor the assailant and, presumably, to justify his violent actions to an extent. For instance, the police report stated that Woolley screamed obscenities at him and “injured [the attacker’s] car severely with his bare hands.”

If the eyewitness account is true, then this could not have been the case. Nevertheless, the report remained unverified with only the attacker giving his side of the story.

Dissatisfied with the police handling of the matter, Woolley sought the assistance of the US Embassy, drawing attention to his history of national service. As Woolley recounts it, “They said, ‘Cliff, we’re sorry, but we cannot intervene in private cases.’”

Woolley was also turned away by over a dozen lawyers before finding one that was willing to represent him. Upon finally reaching this stage of the legal process, more of the incompetence of the system was revealed to him: “By the questions the judges asked me at both district and high courts, it was apparent they hadn’t even read my case files,” Woolley stated when describing his experiences.

He continued, “The judge had an interpreter, and the interpreter wasn’t for me—the interpreter was for the judge. Very few foreigners here have ever been to court. Very few lawyers have ever been to court because they don’t want to go to court. It’s such a farce.”

Ultimately, Woolley would receive 4.5 million yen (about US$41,700) of the 35 million (about US$325,000) he had initially demanded.

Woolley would not receive any of this compensation until late 2011, more than five years after his attack. “If I didn’t have enough savings I’d be destitute. [Myself], my wife and kids.”

Woolley’s experiences with the Japanese legal system are troubling, but there are some who believe that they are not exclusive to foreigners. If that is the case, then Cliff’s story is indicative of the problems within the system as a whole.

Colin Jones, a professor of law at Doshisha Law School, offered his opinion on the matter as follows: “I think it is very easy to exaggerate the degree to which foreigners are treated differently by the Japanese legal system. I am not saying they are NOT, but bad things happening to Japanese people who report crimes they are a victims of is not unheard of. Police routinely do things that seem to be abuses of power to Japanese people (forced urine samples, etc.). I think foreigners just experience a system that seems like it is treating them poorly, when in fact it is probably just normal.”

Jones adds, “I think most police generally want cases to go away, and the pressure on both victim and suspect/defendant to take a settlement is a common feature of the system. There are lawyers who advertise the ‘market rate’ for settling various types of crimes (including rape).”

Whether or not there is some degree of prejudice within the Japanese legal system, its tendency to encourage settlement and move on rather than fighting for justice is something that foreigners—especially those such as Cliff Woolley—may not be accustomed to.


More than thirteen years have passed since his attack, but Woolley still suffers from the events that transpired on that night. In addition to the physical damage done to his body (tooth kicked out, nose damaged irreparably, internal damage where his assailant kicked him), Woolley has been diagnosed with PTSD, as confirmed by a document issued by his doctor.

“This victimization has ruined my peaceful life here, robbed me of my basic rights, destroyed my ability to be a productive, happy, responsible father… a portion of our taxes goes to salaries of government employees, they failed me, failed to do their jobs.”

Given that Japan is likely to host more foreign residents and tourists in the future, it is necessary for such residents and visitors to the country to remain respectful and mindful of the fact that they are not under the jurisdiction of their home country’s more familiar legal system.

“This could happen to anyone,” warns Woolley.