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Judicial Assistance

Arrests in Japan

Japan is an independent, sovereign country. One of the chief attributes of sovereignty is the right of a country to make and enforce laws within its own borders. Just as in America, the government has the internationally recognized right to try foreigners as well as its own nationals within its territory.

Anyone who breaks the law in Japan is subject to prosecution under the Japanese legal system. If a person is convicted and sentenced to imprisonment by a Japanese court, this sentence will be served in a Japanese prison.

While in Japan one is subject to the same laws as is a Japanese citizen. A U.S. passport does not entitle its bearer to any special privileges. One should not expect to receive preferential treatment or to expect that the same array of legal rights accorded one under the U.S. judicial system are necessarily applicable in Japan.

What follows is drawn from explanatory material provided to arrested Americans.

The Consul's Role

The United States Government cannot get you out of jail. The Embassy or Consulates cannot accept custody of you or guarantee your appearance in court. Nor can they post bail for you, act as your legal advisor or pay legal fees for you.

After being arrested, the police will ask you if you would like the Embassy to be notified of your arrest. You can ask that the Embassy will not be notified, and at a later date you may change your mind and request that the police do notify us.

Arrested persons are not allowed to make telephone calls. If you ask that the Embassy or Consulate be notified, the police will call us on your behalf. You cannot speak to us by phone, nor can you call friends or relatives.

What the Embassy/Consulates Can Do


  • Visit you in jail after being notified of your arrest to check on your health and the treatment accorded you by the police;
  • Give you a list of local English-speaking attorneys (you are responsible for paying any lawyers' fees). Japanese law does not provide for a free, court-appointed attorney at the early stages of an arrest. The court-appointed lawyer will only be assigned in certain crime cases before indictment, when the case will go to court.  If you are not eligible for a court-appointed attorney before indictment, you are still eligible for a court-appointed attorney after indictment when the case will go to court.  
  • We will also inform you of the toban bengoshi, or "Duty Attorney" system, whereby the local bar association will send an attorney to meet with you for a free, one-time, consultation.

    The Duty Attorney can also explain about a subsidy program run by the Tokyo Legal Aid Society that can help pay for an attorney to advise an arrestee before a court-appointed lawyer is made available;
  • Make sure the police are aware of any medical conditions you have (for example, diabetes, seafood allergies, etc.), and request that you been seen by a doctor;
  • Work with local authorities to ensure that your rights under Japanese law are fully observed, to include protesting any mistreatment or abuse;
  • Supply you with English-language reading material subject to prison regulations;
  • Notify your family and friends of your arrest, relay requests for financial assistance, provided you authorize the consul to do so.

We are required to gather certain information when we visit an American in jail. Here is a list what information we collect (PDF - 3kb).

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The U.S. Privacy Act

The Privacy Act of 1974 (Public Law 93-579) was enacted to protect U.S. citizens against unauthorized release of information about them by the government. If you want us to notify your family or friends about your arrest you must first give us written permission to do so.

The Embassy will not inform any person of your arrest without your permission. Even if your family or friends find out by other means, we will be unable to discuss your case with them without your permission. Although we routinely report to the Department of State in Washington on the condition of American prisoners in our consular district, the Department of State does not release this information to individuals without your permission.

You give us permission to contact people via a Privacy Act Waiver, or PAW. Here is a sample copy (PDF - 184kb).

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These files are maintained primarily for the purpose of providing protection and assistance to American citizens abroad and not for law enforcement purposes. While there is no automatic or mandatory dissemination of information in consular files to other agencies, we can release specific information to other agencies that have a legitimate interest in such data. Therefore, for legitimate law enforcement purposes in the U.S., the appropriate law enforcement agency in the U.S. may be notified.

Nonetheless, American citizens arrested overseas are not liable for prosecution for the same crime upon their return to the U.S. unless they are also wanted for an offense committed in the U.S. Arrest records maintained by the Japanese government, however, are not bound by the restrictions of the Privacy Act.

We have no control over what information the Japanese police pass to their U.S. counterparts or to INTERPOL. It is possible that U.S. police agencies may have acquired more information about a prisoner from these sources than the Embassy or the Department of State in Washington has at its disposal.

Follow this link for Part II, the initial 72 hours following an arrest...

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