Are Japan’s private investigators public enemy number one?

Street dispute in the (below) child custody investigation case. Grandparents and grandson are to the far right, facing away from the camera. The prodigal son and his second wife are towards the middle (also faced away) talking to police.

Two years ago, a US-based couple hired Tokyo private detective Goro Koyama to help them gain custody over their 5-year old grandson. Koyama’s clients were worried the child was living in the care of unfit parents. They included the grandparent’s 29 year-old son and his second wife.

Investigations revealed the son was an unemployed alcoholic. His first wife and the child’s actual Japanese mother had divorced and fled. His second and current wife, a much older Indonesian woman, was an exotic nightclub dancer and perhaps a prostitute. They and the child lived on government aid in public housing somewhere in Tokyo.

Koyama’s first task was to find the address where the family lived. Since access to databases containing personal information was tightened after 2012, Koyama devised a plan to reveal their address through conventional means. Although strained, the grandparents still communicated with their son by email. Koyama advised his clients to visit Japan and to have a meal with their son and his family at a Tokyo restaurant. Undercover, Koyama waited outside the restaurant for the meal to end. Then he followed the family back home, revealing where they lived.

To gain custody over the grandchild, the grandparents needed to prove their son and second wife were unfit parents. Koyama followed the couple for two or three more weeks. Surveillance revealed the son was jobless and the wife worked in dubious circumstances.

Attorneys working for the grandparents on both sides of the Pacific cooperated on the case. US federal authorities had issued an arrest warrant for the son, but the Japanese police were reluctant to cooperate with US officials. So a plan was hatched by the lawyers to take the son back to the US without the son’s permission.

For three days the grandparents stood hidden from sight outside their son’s apartment, waiting for the right opportunity to grab the child. When the son, second wife and child finally appeared, Koyama’s clients confronted the son. A two hour altercation ensued in the streets of Tokyo.

On seeing his grandparents, the child ran into his grandmother’s loving arms. While the grandfather argued, the grandmother held the child. When the grandmother did the arguing, the grandfather held him. Eventually, the police intervened and took the entire family down to the station. Six hours later they emerged. Only then did Koyama learn the mission was an operational success. Not only had the police granted his client’s custody over their grandchild, but he helped achieve that objective without detection. Through the entire dispute, Koyama had observed unfolding events from a safe distance.

Dark Shadows

Ghosting in and ghosting out, you might never know Koyama is on your tail. Koyama has good reason to remain incognito. Even though he is a fully registered private investigator, the police will suspend his registration, if caught red-handed. In Japan, surveillance isn’t a crime. Getting caught is. “If we continue following someone who is already on to us, that’s against the law,” he says.

To avoid getting into trouble, Koyama must suspend surveillance for between seven to ten days before resuming the investigation. However, if the subject under surveillance calls the police and he is caught, Koyama will be charged with the crime of disturbing the peace, regardless of the facts. Some subjects exaggerate their scare. The police always believe them without checking further, Koyama explains. “If a subject reports to the police, then they may revoke our registration or order a suspension of operation for up to six months,” he says.

According to Koyama, the police don’t appreciate private investigators which interfere with police business. Police are able to maintain tight control over public order without their help. One reason is that Japanese usually obey civic laws out of respect for their fellow citizens. Another is that police are quick to crackdown on offenders, especially after the rare murder or gun crime.

Japan has tough gun control laws which limit deaths caused by firearms to a handful each year. If a private investigator is involved with gun crime, the police “will be all over us no matter what kind of excuse we give,” Koyama reports. “So we have to be very quiet and not catch the public’s attention,” he adds.

The sexy, glamorous image of a Tom Selleck solving criminal or murder cases as in the 1980s US TV series ‘Magnum, P.I.’ does not match the reality of life as a private eye in Japan. Here, private detectives are rarely hired by criminal defense lawyers to gather exonerating evidence on behalf of their clients. Why bother, as court outcomes are predetermined? Ninety-nine percent of criminal prosecutions lead to convictions in Japan.

Barred from pursuing dramatic criminal cases, Koyama (who is bilingual) performs more mundane investigation work for foreign corporations and individuals, such as address verification, due diligence and surveillance.

Address verification typically relates to delivery of court subpoenas. Defendants often try to avoid receiving court summonses. Once they learn a court letter has been issued, defendants are evasive, pretend to be absent or simply ignore them. To confirm that subpoenas are sent to the right address, Koyama checks real estate registry records and interviews rental property landlords.

Sometimes Japanese-American families hire Koyama to locate family members they have lost touch with or never knew. Clients include adult grandchildren of Japanese war brides who married US soldiers and then immigrated to America. Others may be exploring their ancestral roots for existential reasons. Some are searching for heirs to inheritances. In other instances still, US military veterans aim to connect with the children they fathered by former Japanese girlfriends.

Due-diligence cases usually involve foreign clients who want to avoid running afoul of the US Foreign Corruption Practice Act and the UK Bribery Act. In rural Japan, it is especially common for prefectural governors and city mayors to have vested interests in ‘third sector’ companies (e.g. non-governmental organizations, non-profit organizations and public–private partnerships) which are funded by or do business with the prefecture or town. “That’s still common in Japan,” notes Koyama. But in the US and UK, that would constitute a conflict of interest.

Surveillance cases involve infidelity, child custody, corporate embezzlement and fraud. An employee may have embezzled money or violated company rules. For example, a subject might be working for or leaking information to a competitor. When working on a big case, Koyama (or one of two other investigators on his team) can watch a subject for 10 or 12 hours a day. The surveillance may continue for 7 to 10 and on occasion up to 30 days. “Sometimes the subject is vigilant and evasive. It can be hard to follow them, especially if they’ve committed some fraudulent crime like embezzling, taking drugs or where there was infidelity,” he says. When the subject is evasive, it’s a cat and mouse game,” he adds.

Until 2007, the P.I. business was unregulated in Japan. Anybody could say they were a private investigator. Gang members often used the business as cover to launder money or sell drugs. Then, the industry had a poor reputation. The government tried to fix that by introducing a registration system in 2007. But it wasn’t until after a high-profile stalker case in 2012, involving a private detective and the death of a young woman from Zushi City, Kanagawa prefecture, that police cleaned up the industry.

Before the incident, private investigators used ethically questionable methods to obtain a person’s home address. Then, the main source of database information was a person’s cell phone number. In infidelity cases, for example, clients often hire a P.I. to identify the owner of a number, after first checking their spouse’s cell phone for suspicious callers—maybe it’s a secret lover? Some private investigators’ wives or girlfriends worked at major telecom companies, where they had unfettered access to telephone records. Collectively, these ‘plants’ supplied the entire P.I. industry with a quick and low-cost location service.

Skilled private investigators also impersonated people to gather information.  A P.I. might approach a clerk at City Hall pretending to be, for example, the spouse of a subject on whom they sought information. They might say, “My wife received a wrong bill from City Hall. I think your files are wrong. Please check…” Duped city employees then unwittingly disclose private information. This is what occurred in the Zushi City stalker case.

The incident involved a private investigator who was hired by a stalker to track down the stalker’s former girlfriend. The P.I. obtained the young lady’s address from a City Hall employee, under the pretext of being her current husband. The stalker used that information to visit her home the next day, killed her and then committed suicide.

The same stalker had approached Koyama a few days earlier seeking her address. He thought the guy was weird, so Koyama turned down the job. A few days later, the stalker tracked his victim down with the help of another private eye.

After the incident, the police discovered how the stalker got the victim’s address. They responded by cracking down on numerous private investigation firms, including Koyama’s company, Japan PI, Inc. They arrested the P.I. involved in the case on the charge of fraudulent obstruction of business, claiming the detective had interfered with City Hall official business. They also indicted over 40 informants—people who were working for private investigators as subcontractors gathering people’s addresses.

Japan has strict information privacy laws. “Before 2013, it was quite easy to get information,” suggests Koyama. After the incident, private investigators stopped gaining easy access to government and company databases. “Now that most sources are gone, we have to fight bare-handed,” he laments.

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