TOKYO — Japanese officials on Sunday defended the country’s justice system as fair and open and condemned Carlos Ghosn’s flight from criminal charges there, as its courts are put under a global spotlight for their treatment of suspects and a near-perfect conviction record by prosecutors.
In a statement issued near the end of the country’s weeklong New Year’s holiday, Masako Mori, Japan’s justice minister, said officials would investigate how Mr. Ghosn, the former automotive executive, fled the country last week. She said Japanese officials would tighten the processes through which people leave the country, though she disclosed no details.
“Since no record has been found that he left Japan, he may have left the country using illegal measures,” Ms. Mori said in the statement. “It’s truly regrettable.”
Takahiro Saito, deputy chief prosecutor for the city of Tokyo, said in a separate statement on Sunday that Mr. Ghosn “broke his own word” by jumping bail and leaving Japan.
Mr. Saito said Mr. Ghosn, who faces criminal charges of financial wrongdoing, would have received a fair and open trial, responding to Mr. Ghosn’s intense criticism of the country’s justice system.
“The act can never be justified,” Mr. Saito said.
The comments were the first public response by Japan’s government since Mr. Ghosn escaped to Lebanon early last week. Mr. Ghosn, the former chief of Nissan, the Japanese automaker, has long maintained his innocence, saying that he was set up by underlings who worried that he would essentially combine one of the crown jewels of Japan’s auto industry with its French partner, Renault.
Exactly how Mr. Ghosn eluded the Japanese authorities remained a mystery. Local news outlets have reported that surveillance cameras showed him leaving his rental home in a well-to-do neighborhood in central Tokyo by himself on Dec. 29. After that, media reports have said, he boarded a private jet in Osaka and flew to Istanbul, where he took a second plane and flew to Beirut.
The New York Times, citing a person familiar with the matter, reported on Friday that Mr. Ghosn was accompanied out of Japan by an American security consultant named Michael Taylor, a former Green Beret. Turkish news outlets have reported that Mr. Taylor and another American were the only people listed as passengers on a manifest for the flight that carried Mr. Ghosn from Japan to Turkey.
Since Mr. Ghosn’s escape, media reports have swirled that he had been spirited out inside a box meant for musical equipment, and over the weekend, Sabah, a pro-government newspaper in Istanbul, reported that investigators examining the plane used for the Osaka-to-Istanbul flight found two large boxes onboard. Both bear the name of Penn Elcom, a manufacturer of shipping cases, crates and speaker cabinet hardware.
Investigators also checked the plane for fingerprints, the report said.
In Beirut, the Japanese government has begun discussing Mr. Ghosn’s escape with Lebanese officials. On Friday, its ambassador met with Lebanon’s minister for presidential affairs, according to the state-run National News Agency, and discussed “the ramifications” of Japan’s formal request through Interpol, known as a red notice, for help apprehending the former executive.
No details were released, and both sides agreed to maintain contact, the report said. Lebanon has insisted that it played no role in Mr. Ghosn’s escape.
Mr. Ghosn’s dramatic escape from Japan has put the country’s legal system itself on trial, at least in the realm of public opinion. “I have not fled justice,” he said in a statement last week. “I have escaped injustice and political persecution.”
Japanese defense attorneys have long complained that the system is stacked against them. Prosecutors win 99 percent of their cases. They enjoy broad powers to interview suspects without the presence of their lawyers. And many legal experts say the system depends too much on confessions extracted under heavy pressure.
In that environment, Mr. Ghosn’s case presented a quandary for prosecutors, said Steven Davidoff Solomon, a professor at the University of California Berkeley School of Law.
“Japan has a system where everyone pleads guilty,” he said.
Before making bail, Mr. Ghosn, 65, was held in solitary confinement with limited access to his lawyers. Once released, he was not allowed to meet with his wife and was forbidden to use the internet outside his lawyers’ offices. Surveillance cameras watched him come and go from his Tokyo residence.
“The restrictions they were putting on him were extraordinary,” Professor Davidoff Solomon said, “for someone who is not a terrorist and not accused of a violent crime like a mass murder.”
People familiar with Mr. Ghosn’s thinking said he had grown increasingly alarmed over the possibility that he could spend the rest of his life facing charges in Japan, as prosecutors there sought to try him on his four charges of financial wrongdoing in stages rather than all at once.
Takashi Takano, a member of Mr. Ghosn’s legal team, wrote online that he had repeatedly explained to Mr. Ghosn that it would be difficult for him to get a fair trial, but that there was still a strong possibility the court would find him not guilty.
On Christmas Eve, Mr. Ghosn spoke to his wife for an hour, only their second conversation in months. When the couple said their goodbyes, Mr. Takano said, “I had never felt so disappointed in Japan’s justice system.”
When he heard that Mr. Ghosn had fled, “At first, a fierce fury welled up in me. I thought I had been betrayed,” Mr. Takano wrote.
But when he reflected on Mr. Ghosn’s situation, he said, “my anger turned in another direction.”
“I was certainly betrayed,” he said. “But the betrayal was not by Carlos Ghosn.”
Mr. Saito on Sunday defended the system. He said that Mr. Ghosn had been guaranteed a swift trial in an open court, and that prosecutors must prove their allegations to win a conviction.
Conviction rates are high in Japan, Mr. Saito acknowledged in his statement. But he said he was “confident that fair trials are carried out in which the courts allow defendants to make their claims adequately, and can judge from a strictly independent stance whether cases have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“In this case,” he added, “prosecutors have been implementing the appropriate procedures as stipulated by the law and have been proceeding with the investigation and preparation for trials while guaranteeing the rights of Ghosn, the defendant.”
Mr. Saito also defended the strict limits on Mr. Ghosn’s conduct while on bail, citing his wealth and his connections in Japan and around the world.
“As Ghosn has ample funds and a number of bases abroad, it was easy to escape,” he said. “He also has various human networks and a huge amount of influence both inside and outside Japan, so there was a realistic danger of concealing and destroying the evidence.”
As Mr. Ghosn’s flight put the Japanese justice system under a spotlight, it also has put critics of the system in a difficult position. However unfair the process might be, Mr. Ghosn defied it by fleeing, an offense that would invite harsh punishment in any country.
“It’s certain that Japan’s legal system has some big problems from the standpoint of guaranteeing human rights,” Takashi Yamaguchi, a lawyer who famously defended an artist who was arrested on obscenity charges, said in a Twitter post, “but the place he ought to have made his criticisms was a Japanese court, not Lebanon.”
Mark Karpelès, an entrepreneur who fought his own yearslong battle in Japanese courts, said Mr. Ghosn might have lost an opportunity to change the system from within. Mr. Karpelès, the founder of cryptocurrency exchange Mt. Gox, was ultimately found guilty on a charge of falsifying data, which he is appealing, and received a suspended sentence of two and a half years in prison.
Despite the broad powers granted to prosecutors, “the judges are still impartial,” Mr. Karpelès said, adding that “it’s possible to prove your innocence in a Japanese court. I’ve been there, done that.”
Mr. Karpelès said he had met Mr. Ghosn socially in Tokyo on a handful of occasions, most recently in November at a dinner that was attended by Japanese politicians. Mr. Karpelès declined to name the other attendees.
During that dinner, Mr. Karpelès said in an interview on Sunday, there were discussions of how Mr. Ghosn’s case could help address some of the shortcomings of Japan’s justice system.
“There was hope that Carlos Ghosn would help move things in the right direction,” he said, adding that “some people were trying to build something around this to improve the system.”
Now, he wonders whether other suspects might have a harder time getting out of custody on bail. Being released on bail is a “basic requirement” for defending oneself, said Mr. Karpelès, who was detained for almost a year.
“That’s why I’m disappointed,” he said.
“I don’t think the court will be so inclined to let people be free on bail in the future.”
Emily Flitter contributed reporting from New York.