Imagine a world where criminal defense attorneys face impossible odds every time they step into the court room. A world where prosecutors go years without a defeat, judges are unsympathetic, and clients have often confessed before the trial even begins. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is no stranger to these challenges, but neither is any attorney working in the Japanese criminal justice system!

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If you are charged with a crime in Japan and brought to trial, statistics show that there is a 99 percent chance that you will be convicted. This alarming statistic reveals the highly dysfunctional legal system from which the Ace Attorney series clearly takes its inspiration; a system where even a victim of false allegations finds it impossible to escape conviction. Phoenix Wright, the eponymous lawyer of the popular Capcom games, constantly battles seemingly impossible odds as he fights to defend his falsely accused clients. While the fantastical anime nature of the games gives rise to outlandish courtroom antics and bizarre scenarios, the core concept of a lopsided legal system weighted against the accused is an exaggerated parody of Japanese society and their courts.

The influence of Japanese culture on the Ace Attorney world is indisputable. Localization has inserted American pop culture references, and characters often vaguely assert that events happen “here in this country,” yet, in reality, the world of Phoenix Wright is distinctly Japanese. Assisted on his adventures by two Hakama-clad spirit mediums, Phoenix (“Nick” to his friends) draws special powers from his “magatama,” a traditional Japanese symbol. Japanese flavor pervades the whole environment. The top TV shows are the Steel Samurai and the Jammin’ Ninja; our heroes seem to be constantly snooping around Shinto/Buddhist temples; and a deranged Japanese nationalist is encountered throwing seeds at birds in the local park. It is only natural that the courts also mirror their Japanese counterparts. Juries are virtually unknown and major criminal cases are decided by professional judges based on evidence presented by defense attorneys and state prosecutors.

So, what makes criminal defense such a challenge in Japan? Takashi Takano, professor at Waseda University and one of Japan’s most prominent defense attorneys described it as “one of the toughest jobs in the world.” In over 25 years, only five of his clients have ever been exonerated. Yet this isn’t a bad record, many attorneys go their whole careers without winning a case. Critics of the system are far from unanimous on the cause but the Phoenix Wright games touch on some of the more controversial institutions of the Japanese legal world, such as a powerful and detached prosecutor class, a police force that has lost public confidence, and a dangerous reliance on confessions as the centerpiece of prosecutions. These elements combine to make acquittal nearly impossible and grievous miscarriages of justice almost inevitable.

The arrogant prosecutor, favoring convictions over the truth, is a mainstay of the PW series. Phoenix Wright’s courtroom adversaries are far from sympathetic characters. Preening and haughty, the game’s prosecutors radiate extreme arrogance and care for nothing but successful convictions and maintaining perfect winning streaks (sometimes engaging in underhanded tactics along the way). They are portrayed as powerful, high-status individuals who would never miss an opportunity to lord it over lowly defense attorneys. Even Miles Edgeworth, the redeemed prosecutor, continues to conform to this archetype. Despite ultimately coming to realize that the truth is more important than convictions, Edgeworth remains as proud and supercilious as ever. The prosecutors of Ace Attorney, virtually without exception, are portrayed as unscrupulous egomaniacs.

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While the widespread underhanded behavior among prosecutors is a little exaggerated, the idea of the prosecutor as a very powerful individual with a high social status has roots in the history of the Japanese legal system. Traditionally, prosecutors were considered part of the judiciary and regarded themselves on the same level, or higher, than judges. Conversely, attorneys were considered far lower on the totem pole due their inferior level of legal education and their lack of influence in the bureaucracy. While post-war reforms have evened this out a bit, prosecutors retain a great deal of status and clout. The games reflect this, not just in the broad depiction of prosecutors as arrogant and powerful, but in how other characters perceive them. Edgeworth travels first class and drives expensive cars, while Nick rarely has two cents to rub together. Prosecutors are treated with awe and admiration, while Nick doesn’t get much respect from anyone, including his own assistants.

Prosecutors exercise great control over all aspects of the criminal process. Their presence looms large from the crime scene to the courtroom. Unique to the Japanese system, prosecutors often directly oversee investigations. While the investigating officers technically have primary responsibility, in practice, prosecutors often take charge and issue orders to the police. In Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth, we get to see this in action as the prosecutor directs a series of investigations and bosses around the local police.

Once investigation is complete, a prosecutor has complete discretion on whether a case goes ahead to trial or not. As in the games, high conviction rates are highly prized as a sign of prudence and professionalism among prosecutors. Given their intimate involvement throughout the process, a prosecutor will usually be extremely confident when they decide to take a case to trial. While not quite the crooked villains of the Ace Attorney courtrooms, the lofty stature and excessive power of Japan’s prosecutors clearly provided inspiration for Phoenix Wright’s egomaniacal nemeses.

Contemporary attitudes to the Japanese police force are also evident throughout the series. The modern Japanese police officer is represented in the form of Detective Dick Gumshoe. Gumshoe is a nice guy who means well, and his heart is always in the right place. Unfortunately, he is also completely incompetent. Many of the other police in PW are similarly nice but dim. Maggie Byrd screws up everything she ever attempts and finds herself on trial for murder on four occasions, while the moronic Officer Meekins makes even Gumshoe seem professional. In the 2000s, public confidence in the Japanese police force dropped below 50 percent, a historic low that does not compare favorably with other industrialized jurisdictions. Since the late 90s, crime in Japan has surged by 150 percent and the public does not feel that the police are up to dealing with the complexities of modern crime. The game’s unflattering portrayal of the police reflects the growing public discontent over their performance.

Finally, there is the prevalence of confessions. Ever notice how so many of Nick’s clients have already confessed to crimes by the time he takes on their case? Known as “the king of evidence” by the Japanese system, confessions obtained in custody by prosecutors and police are the basis of the majority of convictions. Few rules govern what goes on in a Japanese interrogation room. Suspects are held for long periods before being charged or brought to trial, and the law offers them little protection. Critics argue that the system is open to abuse, and that false confessions are often extracted through coercion. While Ace Attorney avoids directly confronting the hot topic of forced confessions (Nick’s clients usually have some convoluted reason for falsely confessing), it does reflect on how strangely commonplace they are in the Japanese system and the dangers of their centrality to convictions.

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All-powerful prosecutors, incompetent police, and reliance on dubious confessions constitute the recipe for what lies at the heart of every good Ace Attorney case: a grievous miscarriage of justice! Forum 90, a Japanese anti-death penalty group, conducted a survey of 900 ex-judges. Over 80 percent believed, that under the current system, miscarriages of justice were inevitable. Take the case of Toshikazu Sugaya. He matched the profile and blood type of a child murderer, but the police lacked any evidence. “They barged in and told me to sit down,” recalls Sugaya. “Then they kept saying, ‘You killed that kid, didn’t you?’ I said ‘No, no,’ but they didn’t believe me.” After a 13 hour interrogation without food, water, or a lawyer, Sugaya confessed. Armed with this confession, the prosecution successfully convicted him and he was sentenced to life in prison. It would be nearly 18 years before modern DNA evidence would completely exonerate him. Faced with an unfair system inflicting cruel injustice on helpless innocents, it’s no coincidence that someone in Japan dreamed up Phoenix Wright, the heroic defense attorney. No matter the odds, no matter how certain defeat, Nick never gives up and remains unwavering in his belief in his client’s innocence!

Despite being so critical of Japanese criminal justice, Ace Attorney leaves us with reason to be hopeful about the future. The redemption story of Miles Edgeworth shows that the creators believe that the system has the capacity to change. Even more significant is the main storyline in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. Mirroring long-running law reform debate in the Japanese legal world, the plot sees Phoenix himself working to reform the courts by introducing a jury system. In 2009, Japan held its first jury trials since 1942. From now on, the fate of defendants in major criminal trials will be decided by 3 professional judges and 6 lay-judges. Decisions will be by mixed majority (the majority vote must include at least one professional and one lay judge) and it is hoped these lay-judges will bring fresh perspectives and won’t be so entrenched in the status quo.

The cases of Phoenix Wright always end up being more complex than they first appear, and the same could be said of the games themselves. Beneath the outrageous courtroom battles and zany characters lies a sly critique of Japanese justice. So the next time that you’re frustrated by certain defeat or feel like the deck is stacked against you, take heart! This is just another day in the life of a Japanese defense attorney.

A three year resident of Japan, Fintan Monaghan currently works at a human rights NGO. His freelance work has been published on a wide variety of Japan-related subjects.

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