Photo/IllutrationA coroner, second from right, works with a postmortem examiner, left, and others in Aichi Prefecture. (Ryusaburo Matsumoto)

  • Photo/Illustraion

NAGOYA--Takashi Saito was a 17-year-old novice sumo wrestler when he was ferociously beaten with a bottle, a baseball bat and the fists of other sumo wrestlers in June 2007.

Police who initially examined Saito’s battered body decided that the cause of death was “heart disease.” They did not request an autopsy.

That was rather the norm at that time across Japan.

But since that mistake, police departments have developed science-based frameworks to prevent crime-induced deaths from going unnoticed. The number of coroners has increased, upgraded technologies for forensics are being used and improved laws have been established to more accurately determine cause of death.

Saito was in the entry-level jonokuchi division when he died during training at the Tokitsukaze stable in Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture.

The Inuyama Police Station did not suspect foul play, and officials sent a fax to the Aichi Prefectural Police Department’s coroners’ office that summarized the traits of the body and circumstances at the time of death. All coroners were absent when the fax was sent.

Saito’s family members, who saw an excess of external injuries on the teenager’s body, asked Niigata University, in their area of residence, to perform an autopsy.

The results showed that Saito died of shock from multiple trauma.

The Inuyama Police Station’s initial theory had already delayed the start of a criminal investigation into Saito’s death.

Months later, in September 2007, stablemaster Tokitsukaze and senior apprentices admitted to assaulting Saito for disciplinary purposes. They were arrested the following year on suspicion of causing bodily injury resulting in death and other crimes.

Diet members drafted a law on promoting cause-of-death investigations in light of the fatal beating of Saito and carbon monoxide poisoning deaths from gas instantaneous water heaters, which came to light in 2006. The law was enacted in 2012.

A separate law took effect in 2013, making it possible for bodies with apparently few signs of foul play to undergo autopsies at the discretion of a police station chief.

The Aichi Prefectural Police Department has increased the number of its coroners from five in 2007 to 14.

The greater number enables coroners to inspect more bodies at potential crime sites.

While only about 400, or 6.7 percent of all bodies, were inspected by coroners in Aichi Prefecture in 2007, the number rose to about 6,000 bodies, or 82.8 percent, in 2016.

In recent years, 60 to 80 bodies in Aichi Prefecture have been autopsied annually under the 2013 law, accounting for 20 percent of all autopsies, officials said.

Other police departments in Japan have expanded their coroners’ examination capabilities. The number of bodies checked by coroners rose from about 18,300 (11.9 percent of all bodies) in 2007 to about 126,100 (78.2 percent) in 2016.

“Coroners can now attend more than 80 percent of all cases,” said Yasuhiro Moribe, head of the first investigation division of the Aichi prefectural police, who supervises murder investigations.

“It is also an encouraging fact that more senior police station officials are former coroners,” he said. “While it is not easy to create a perfect organizational setup, we hope to block loopholes to the best extent we can.”

CT SCANNING ENHANCES FORENSIC EXAMS

Advanced technology has increasingly been used to determine cause of death over the past decade.

In July last year, a coroner who holds the rank of captain in the first investigation division of the Aichi prefectural police, took the body of a 40-something man found in a car to a general hospital in western Aichi Prefecture for diagnostic imaging through computed tomography (CT).

The dead man was fairly young, and he had no medical history that could be directly linked to his death.

CT scanning is typically used on living patients.

The coroner explained that CT technology can help detect symptoms in a dead person that may not be visible from the outside, such as a brain hemorrhage.

The hospital, which started regular use of CT scanning seven years ago, currently accepts about 700 tests a year from the police departments of Aichi and Gifu prefectures.

“The cause of death is now identifiable in a growing number of cases where it would have been left unidentified before,” said the hospital director, who has experience as a postmortem examiner.

The CT imaging revealed nothing unusual in the man’s head or internal organs. His body was transferred to an autopsy room for study by the coroner and a postmortem examiner.

“Blood congestion in the face ... skin discoloration in the left upper limb ... a blister on the arm,” the pair said in dictating their observations to each other. An assistant took notes in silence.

The coroner subsequently took a blood sample from the body and injected it into a purpose-made detection tube.

Starting in fiscal 2016, police departments across Japan have been testing all bodies, in principle, for cyanide compounds, having learned lessons from the so-called “black widow” case concerning a series of suspicious deaths through 2013 in Hyogo, Kyoto and Osaka prefectures.

About 30 minutes after the body was taken to the hospital, the cause of death was identified as heatstroke. No external injuries, toxic substances or drugs were found, and foul play was ruled out.

Determining the cause of a death, however, is never easy. One wrong decision could allow a killer to escape justice forever.

“A coroner’s examination is the ‘last batch of health care’ to be provided on a person,” said a former coroner. “Every single body is being inspected more carefully now. The examinations are higher in quality than before.”

(This article was written by Ryusaburo Matsumoto, Haruka Suzuki and Tatsuro Sugiura.)