The arrest of house music legend David Morales in Japan last week made international news, with wire reports on AP, stories in UK tabloids and the usual cut-and-paste job on music blogs.

David’s management issued a single statement on October 8, 2018: “We’re unable to comment at this time, but will share further information with you as and when we’re able to do so. Thank you for your thoughts and wishes.”

Since then, we’ve heard nothing. This is not surprising or unusual in Japanese drug cases.

Japanese police can hold suspects for quite a bit longer than their American counterparts. Morales is likely still detained, and as a drug suspect may be held under a system of limited communication with anyone but his lawyers and US embassy personnel.

I’ve been talking to informed individuals for the last week about the matter. Almost to a man, when told that the drug arrest happened in Japan, their reaction was a painful grimace or wince.

Japan’s drug laws are, not to put too fine a point on it, insane.


The Facts, As Reported So Far

The Japan Times (via Kyodo News Agency) was I believe the first with the story in English media. Their story communicates the following facts:

  • Morales was arrested Sunday, October 7 2018 at Fukuoka Airport
  • The drug and quantity in question was “0.3 gram of MDMA” stuffed in a sock on a carry-on bag
  • Morales is quoted, via the police, as denying ownership, saying someone “might have tried” to trap him.

The Asahi Shimbum adds that the amount was contained in a plastic bag “containing five or six white crystals, each half the size of a rice grain, in the artist’s small wheeled case.”

Beyond this we know nothing, and will not speculate on David’s specific situation.

The rest of this story is a primer on the Japanese legal process, local drug laws and arrests under similar circumstances.


What Are Japanese Drug Laws Like?

Many countries proclaim a “zero tolerance” policy for drug possession. Japan is on a whole different level. That only a small amount was allegedly found may be relevant for sentencing, but it should be noted that it’s possible to be charged under Japanese drug laws even for evidence of use found in urine and follicle samples. The minuscule amount of MDMA that is contained in the “five or six white crystals, each half the size of a rice grain” allegedly found in David’s carry-on is secondary to the fact that something was found at all.

Japan’s most famous musical convict was Paul McCartney, who was held for 9 days in 1980 after attempting to bring marijuana through airport customs. Visitors with drug convictions in foreign countries are sometimes refused entry altogether.

The British Embassy in Tokyo has produced an astonishingly thorough four part “prisoner pack” to aid UK nationals accused of crimes in Japan and their families. Reading it is a highly enriching (and somewhat chilling) experience. We’ll post material from it below, but by way of an executive summary:

Police have the power to detain people whilst they investigate you, for up to 23 days, even for minor offences. If you are arrested, the police can question you before you are able to speak to a lawyer or an embassy consular officer. Investigations are not usually recorded and lawyers are not present. High quality interpretation may not always be available. If you are charged with a crime, it is likely that you will be detained without bail until your court dates. You may be subject to a communications ban if the charges are drug related, which means you will only be allowed to speak to your lawyer and embassy while awaiting trial. Legal proceedings can take many months or longer.


The US Embassy in Tokyo advises that “bail is the exception rather than the rule” and is “virtually unheard of for foreigners on visitor status.” Bail is not available at all until you are indicted (up to 23 days after arrest). The embassy warns however that “if you are arrested in Japan you will in all likelihood remain in jail until you are indicted or released.”

Furthermore, for “most drug cases” prosecutors will bar suspects from receiving visitors “other than a lawyer or a Consul, and from corresponding with anyone other than their lawyer or (in most cases) the Embassy or Consulate… Incommunicado orders may continue until the first trial date.”


What Is Happening Right Now?

Only David, his lawyers, the embassy and the police are privy to what is happening right now. But this chart from the British Embassy in Tokyo describes better than several paragraphs of text what happens to a suspect in Japan during the initial detention period:

There is also this harrowing note:

Prosecutors in Japan generally do not take a case to trial unless they are convinced they can win. About 60% of all cases are dropped prior to indictment. However, after indictment, the conviction rate in Japan is over 99%.


This chart from the same document outlines “life at a police station” when you’re detained.

Finally, here is a full (color-coded!) “Detention in Japan Timeline”:


What Is The Best Possible Outcome?

Someone I spoke to advised me to look up the case of Matt Sydal for an example of a somewhat “famous” person arrested recently at customs in Japan for drug possession.

A professional wrestler, Sydal was arrested at customs for smuggling 2 grams of marijuana in an e-cigarette. Arrested September 23, 2016, Sydal admitted his guilt and accepted a 3 year sentence of probation. About 12 weeks after his initial arrest, Sydal was released from prison, sent to the airport and left the country. (Note that even though Sydal pled guilty, he was still indicted for a crime. Under Japanese law, all crimes deemed “serious” are subject to indictment for trial, even when an admission of guilt has been made.)

It’s awful to speculate what will happen in this situation. The Japanese legal system appears to be almost impervious to outside pressure (or even observation) by design. No one close to David has called for a coordinated campaign (or called for anything).

It’s our hope that Morales will not be indicted and will be free to leave the country at the end of the initial detainment period. He’s an artist, and not one person will benefit from his being detained a minute longer.


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