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What The Ghosn Affair Says About Japan And The West

The fate of disgraced auto chief Carlos Ghosn has revealed deep differences between the Japanese and Western systems of justice. And not only.

Japanese newspaper headlines when Carlos Ghosn was first arrested in November 2018
Japanese newspaper headlines when Carlos Ghosn was first arrested in November 2018
Nicolas Barré iQ

PARIS — When visiting the West this week, and starting with France on Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe knows his country's image has been damaged by the extraordinary Ghosn affair. The allegations against Renault and Nissan's former CEO — indicted on further charges again in Tokyo on Monday — have stunned and shaken even his most fervent supporters. And yet the world has also discovered through this case the particularities of a judicial system that reveals a "double-layered" Japan: Western on the outside, Japanese on the inside.

Head of a nationalist government, Abe embodies this ambivalence with his contested vision of history, his controversial reinterpretation of the Constitution toward a deeper military commitment, and his iron fist against the critical media. Japan's history in the second half of the 20th century is one of a country that successfully opened itself to globalization, but on its own terms.

The frequent mistake of Westerners was to believe that appearances, capitalism sparkling with a thousand fires in the streets of Ginza, is the equivalent of adhering to our main principles. The Japanese, however, do not hide from the "gaijin," the prevalence of their own values: "This is Japan..." they often say to apologize to the incredulous outsider in response to the application of rules that seem strange to us. This usually contributes to the infinite charm of this country but can turn into an endless torment where one is caught in the clutches of a judicial system whose foundations are far removed from ours.

This primacy of individual rights does not have the same weight.

For us, respecting the rights of the defense is essential, including knowledge of the alleged facts, access to the file, and the presence of a lawyer at every stage of the proceedings. Similarly, deprivation of liberty during the prolonged detention from week to week seems contrary to basic rights.

This primacy of individual rights, resulting from liberal philosophy, does not have the same weight in a country where culture is more valued than the preservation of societal cohesion. The world was shocked to learn that 99% of prosecutions by Japanese prosecutors resulted in the conviction of the suspect. The whole procedure is based on confessions, wrenched out of the suspect whenever and however necessary. For many Japanese, this is seen as part of the guarantee of a safer society, a supreme goal that outweighs the risks, intolerable in other freedoms, of making a judicial error.

Revealed by the Ghosn affair, this dark side of Shinzo Abe's Japan has sparked, for the first time, a lively debate in the country about its own judicial system. Ghosn has turned out to be a different kind of consensus breaker.

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Women protest on International Women's Day in London in 2022

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And on another continent, parts of the U.S. are legislating to ensure that women can no longer have a legal abortion. In both cases, lurking patriarchal beliefs were allowed to reemerge when political leadership failed. We have an eerie feeling of travelling back through time. But how long has patriarchy dominated our societies?

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