Objection! A look at Ace Attorney’s depiction of law and popular views of thus

No more legal documents, please oh god

Ace Attorney 6: Spirit of Justice is out and appears to hold the same high-quality the series has always had. I am a little behind, yet to play Apollo Justice, Dual Destinies, Dai Gyakuten Saiban, Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright, and now this one. What I have played so far I have loved and has quickly become one of my favorite franchises.

I was convinced to play within minutes of seeing footage of the first game for the first time. Until then, I thought the “Objection!” images and jokes and all the stuff about Phoenix Wright was either from Harvey Birdman or some similar show. I was surprised to find it was a game where you battle in court over murder cases. However that concept alone was not what pulled me or many of its fans in.

The charm of Ace Attorney is its goofiness and how well it juggles that with its more serious moments, much like Metal Gear Solid. I was giggling like a little schoolgirl all the way through the first game. I loved the over-the-top yelling of phrases like “Objection!”, “Hold it!” and “Take that!” I loved when you would call out a contradiction causing the witness and the prosecutor to be seemingly hit with physical attacks, followed by the audience rabbling in unintelligible gibberish and finally shut up by the judge slamming his gavel down, all while jazzy music plays and you stand there smug as fuck.

Obviously, this is not how court proceedings occur in the US, in Japan, or anywhere in the world. Given how over-the-top silly the games are, no one thinks that this is how real court proceedings occur. But there is always murmuring about just what is realistic and what isn’t. I’ve done the research, and as junior writer and game-loving 20-something living in Japan, of course I am totally qualified to talk about Japanese law.

In Mythbusters-like fashion let’s look at various aspects of court depicted in the games one-by-one. First, the game takes place in Japan. I know what some of you are ready to say, “But Cory, in the English version it takes place in Los Angeles/alternate reality LA.” I don’t care; the game was intended to set in Japan so DEAL WITH IT. Second, let’s get the obvious shit out of the way: spirit channeling and supernatural elements of the game are obviously not things that come up during a trial, whips and coffee are unfortunately not permitted in court, forensics take more than a day, trials last far longer than three days, there are no virtual crime-scene recreation devices, and murder is not the only crime ever brought to trial. Okay? Okay.

Yelling “Objection!” and slamming gavels

In the Japanese version of the game, they say “iie” which roughly means “no” but has different connotations and uses in English. It’s generally a rude thing to say in denial, more so than the English “no,” so people generally politely make excuses. Attorneys yelling it in court in Ace Attorney is every bit as ridiculous as with the English “Objection!” The difference is this: whereas the phrase “objection” is used in American courts (not yelling, usually), the word “iie” isn’t used in the context of objecting to something in court because as you know Japanese people are polite and not so confrontational. Which might also be why judges don’t pound gavels to shut people up, which begs the question: is it because they are too polite to tell the audience to shut up, or the audience is too polite to be loud in the first place? Series creator Shu Takumi noticed both of these when he and his team visited real courts prior to making the game, but decided to leave them in the game anyway.

Glamorous prosecutors, poor lawyers

While Phoenix Wright is in a small office and is generally not respected so much, prosecutors like Miles Edgeworth live the high life with fancy offices, haircuts, cravats, badges, and high salaries on par with that of judges. This is fairly accurate (Chapter 1: 2. B). Prosecutors are held in high regard for cleaning up the streets and their large amount of work overseeing investigations. On the flip side, lawyers like poor ole Nick are typically seen in a more negative light for, in the public’s eye, defending criminals (this idea aided by the fact that over 99% of people tried are convicted. Did I just spoil my own blog? Oops, oh well.)


Do real lawyers go around flashing their badge to everyone like Ash Ketchum? Not really, but they are very important and must be shown when verifying ones profession. They even go so far as to purposely cause the badges to wear away and show the silver underneath, as such wear is the sign of a veteran. Prosecutors of course get even more fancy ones. Read about them here. Hey, when do I get my Destructoid badge to flash in everyone’s face?

Trial and Investigation

Yep, I think it checks out Jim. In real-life Japanese courts, one or three judges is typically used. That word “saiban-in” is basically “lay judge” or jury, which was not a part of court hearing from 1943 until 2009 when they implemented this new lay judge system, which you can see referenced in Apollo Justice.

The trials are carried out in-game in a fairly realistic way. There is an opening statement, followed by presentation of evidence, witness testimony and cross-examination, defendant questioning, and finally closing arguments. If the case is settled a sentence is issued by the judge (the lay judges/jury just aid the judges in their decision but do not have deciding power). I know I’ll get called out if I don’t mention that this is an Inquisitorial system, as opposed to the adversarial system used in countries like the US. There, I said it.

Do lawyers and prosecutors investigate the crime scene and collect evidence with the police?

In the case of prosecutors, they can if they want to or if its important enough, but typically they just relegate the task to the police (pg. 15). Defense attorneys do not investigate, but prosecutors are required to disclose evidence to them before the trial to build their case.

Wacky witnesses

You cross examine a parrot and an assassin via radio in the series. Can animals really testify in court? Can testimony be given remotely using telephones or other technology? There are some reported cases of animals giving testimony, including a parrot and a dog, but there does not exist any concrete documented occurrence of testimony given via animals or telephone. I wasn’t able to find any rule that said they can’t though either, in Japan or anywhere. I want to say yes, but there isn’t enough hard evidence that I can find.

You can’t touch me! I have extra-territorial immunity!”

Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth spoilers!

This phrase is repeatedly claimed by an elusive culprit who committed murder within his home country’s embassy in order to escape the might of Edgeworth’s cravat. This was such a long and drawn-out issue in the case that it has become somewhat of a mini-meme within the Ace Attorney fan circle. But is it accurate? Are such people truly safe from being detained and prosecuted by the host country if a crime is committed in the embassy that is granted extra-territorial rights?

Yes, with an asterisk. For most crimes omitted on their home country’s extra-territorially claimed land, a person will be tried by their home country and not the host country, as outlined by article 31 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. This was signed by 187 countries including Japan, but for some reason not Allebhast. Those bastards. However, per Article 32, the sending country may revoke its diplomat’s immunity, such as in cases of severe crime, (you know, like fucking murdering someone), in which case jurisdiction falls to the host country. Which is exactly what happens in the game. So yeah, fuck you Alba. Not you Jessica, you’re okay <3.

Statute of Limitations

In at least one case in the series, a statute of limitations rule is a primary concern, where after 15 years the court says “fuck it we give up” and the case is closed for good. Real? Yes, at least it used to be. As of April 28, 2010, Japan removed the statue of limitations on murder (although it remains for other crime).

Defending someone you know is guilty

Spoiler. In Justice for All, Phoenix Wright ends being coerced into defending someone who he knows is guilty of the crime, as his partner Maya is kidnapped and threatened to be killed if he doesn’t get the culprit a ‘not guilty’ verdict. A lawyer who played through the games talks in detail about this. According to her, you have to defend people you think are guilty or don’t like all the time as that’s just what a defense attorney’s job is. She complains that forcing Wright to defend Engarde by having Maya kidnapped absolves him of the dilemma and is a cop out with everyone having a happy ending. I agree with her. Justice for All is widely regarded as the weakest title in the series. The fact that the game’s script had to be written within three and a half months probably contributed to at least some of its flaws.

Forced confessions
Lightly touched upon at times, illegally obtained or false confessions are not permitted in court (Chapter 5: III. C. 3. [Criminal Justice in Japan, UNAFEI]). But do they happen? They do. There are many reports you can find with a simple Google search. It likely happens due to a desire for a speedy verdict and close the case, as well an perhaps an eensy bit of hard-headedness. I was surprised when researching this, but still I think it’s not as severe an issue as people imagine.

Forging evidence

Manfred von Karma and a few others have forged evidence to further their goals. Some have read in to this as being commentary on the situation in Japan, with success-driven prosecutors looking to get guilty verdicts no matter the cost. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not the games creators are potentially parodying or criticizing prosecution with Manfred von Karma, but I have been unable to locate any definitive proof that there is a problem with forgery on a large scale. However, if there was a significant issue with forgery, there ought to be at least some reports on it. Prosecutors in Japan have way more cases than they can handle. They have plenty of guaranteed convictions, so I really doubt they would need to resort to forgery and put their fancy badge and cravats at risk. Not to say it never happens, but it does not appear to be an issue of any significance.

Withheld evidence

Of course it’s illegal, but is it as prevalent an issue as it appears in Ace Attorney? Not so much. There was one case where withheld evidence led to the conviction of a Nepalese man. Though one instance is not enough for me declare it an issue, just as I’m not ready to determine a girl is in love with me after one compliment.

Stepping away from things depicted in the games, here are two major myths about the Japanese legal system:

In Japan it’s guilty-until-proven innocent!

“Every defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty” – Chapter 5: 1. A. [Criminal Justice in Japan, UNAFEI].

In the game this seems to be the philosophy, but the game wouldn’t be very exciting if it didn’t right?

Japan has a 99% conviction rate! Scary!”

Finally, the one everyone loves to mention. Is it true that 99% of trials end in a guilty verdict? Yes, it is actually not an exaggeration but an accurate figure. Is it scary? No. Here is a chart from the 2014 Outline of Criminal Procedure by the Supreme Court of Japan.

As you can see 0.11% (not 11%) of cases had a “not guilty” verdict in 2008 and the statistic had not changed much from then through 2012. Before you start panicking or getting upset know this: crimes are only tried when the prosecution is absolutely certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the suspect is guilty and they have a solid case against them. Trials are not so much above proving guilt, but carrying out sentences.

Why do you think Edgeworth and von Karma have such good records and go into trials with such confidence? You can probably guess that a proud people who like to preserve face like the Japanese do would not want to wrongly imprison or even execute someone, both for their subconscious and their record. More importantly however, prosecutors do not want to waste time, money and effort if they are not certain they will get a guilty verdict when they could be using that time tackling easier cases.

Plea bargains (making a deal with the defendant to confess for a lighter sentence) are not practiced in Japan. This is why trials are in fact surprisingly short (although not necessarily three days short) and there’s so much talk of fast trials by characters like Franziska and Manfred von Karma in the game: they have already built a case against the defendant and it’s just a matter of course. 
Why is the Japanese conviction rate so high? [Ramseyer, Mark. Rasmusen, Eric].

The Ace Attorney series is really damn goofy, but but not as phony or unrealistic as some may think. I was inspired to write this considering the way some people overreact to statistics without thinking about them too much. There is no hard evidence that Shu Takumi or anyone at Capcom was aiming for parody, critique, or anything more than simply making an entertaining game. I won’t cite interpretations as fact, but it’s always fun to talk about.

What do you think? Do you think they were trying to critique the Japanese law in any of the games? Is the judge and much of the police force (Gumshoe, Meekins, Maggie Byrd) stupid for comedy or to make a statement? Even if we had an answer of what the creators’ intent was, art should be separated from the artist: if you derived some meaning from something that the creator did not intend, that does not make it any less legitimate.

About The Author
Cory Arnold
Pretty cool dude in Japan. 6/9/68
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