Japan’s newly introduced plea bargain system has started with the first deal under the system recently struck between public prosecutors and a Japanese company over a bribery case.

Under Japan’s plea bargaining system, the defendant agrees to cooperate with investigations into crimes committed by others in return for a dismissal of the charges or a reduced sentence.

The Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office had indicted a former board member, an operating officer and a general manager of Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Ltd. for breaching the Unfair Competition Prevention Law by giving bribes to Thai public officials to win contracts for a project to construct a power plant in Thailand.

The public prosecutors have agreed not to bring a criminal case against the company, which has cooperated with investigators in the scandal.

Japan has often been criticized by the international community for failing to take effective steps to prevent and punish bribery cases involving overseas operations by Japanese companies.

The Tokyo prosecutors deserve credit for prosecuting the case by using the new tool for criminal investigations. But the deal has raised some questions about how this system should be used.

The plea bargain system, which was introduced in June, is supposed to serve mainly as a means for law enforcement to expose crimes perpetrated by businesses and other organizations by securing the cooperation of rank-and-file members of the organizations who have actually carried out the criminal acts involved.

In the first plea bargain case, however, the investigation has reached into high-level executives, but the company itself has been given immunity.

The company learned about the misconduct of the employees in March 2015, when the wrongdoing was reported by a whistle-blower. It reported the case to prosecutors in June.

How did the prosecutors investigate the allegations thereafter? What kind of useful evidence did they obtain under the plea bargain? Did the accused act on their own in bribing the Thai officials? Was it really a reasonable deal?

The prosecutors need to answer these and other key questions during the trial on the case to dispel any doubt over the deal.

In March, the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office announced guidelines for using the system, saying a plea offer should be made only when the public is expected to support the use of the tactic.

The prosecutors need to offer a thoughtful and scrupulous explanation about their decision in line with the criteria set by the top prosecution body.

The court, for its part, should tread more cautiously than usual in proceeding with trials.

Since the government effectively decided to introduce the plea bargain system four years ago, companies in Japan have been considering their responses.

Companies are stepping up efforts to strengthen their employees’ commitment to compliance to prevent violations of the law within their organizations. When a crime committed by an employee comes to light, many companies will swiftly carry out an internal inquiry and consider seeking a plea bargain.

They are also reviewing and improving their compliance regimes including a whistle-blowing system for more effective and transparent internal communication concerning the matter.

From the viewpoint of these corporate responses to the introduction of plea bargaining, the first deal under the system is what many firms would consider to be a typical case.

It is now clear that the era has passed when companies tried to protect employees and executives who have violated the law for the sake of the companies.

It is no longer necessary for corporate employees to feel trapped in a dilemma between compliance and contribution to their companies.

The case against Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems will bring about significant changes in Japan’s corporate culture.

Plea bargaining raises concerns about various risks, including the risk of innocent people becoming embroiled because of false allegations.

All the people and organizations involved are required to offer ingenious ideas and effective efforts to ensure that the system will produce expected benefits and become firmly established in society.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 19