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Japan: “Thought Check” Screening for Citizen Judges

Categories: East Asia, Japan, Governance, Law, Politics

While news in Japan this week has been understandably fixated on the sensational suicide of Agriculture Minister Matsuoka Toshikatsu [1] (and related scandals [2]), as is often the case in this country, another story — somewhat less sensational yet arguably at least as significant — slipped by without much notice. The story was brought up in a blog entry posted last Saturday at the “doko doko [3]” blog of Diet member Nobuto Hosaka [4] of the Social Democratic Party of Japan, the most active member in the House of Representatives (in terms of number of questions raised) and known for being a thorn in the side of the ruling party coalition [5]. Saturday's post concerned a new “citizen judge system [6]” to be introduced in Japan by May 2009, one which would allow, for the first time in Japan's history, a group of six citizen judges (along with 3 professional judges) to preside on cases involving verdicts as serious as the death penalty. (A simulation of the selection process for choosing citizen judges is already being carried out [7].)

To understand the significance of the new citizen judge system, it is useful to review some basic facts about the judicial system in Japan. On paper at least, Japan's judicial system boasts impressive figures, with a staggeringly high 99.8% conviction rate [8] and an 86.6% rate of “full confession by the accused” [9]. And yet, as was recently revealed in the dramatic story of a group of suspects in a vote-buying case, forced, among other things, to shout confessions out a window and stomp on the names of loved ones [10], these figures hide much more than they actually reveal.

Surely one of the most vocal critics of the justice system in Japan has been long-time writer [11], activist [12] and blogger [13] Arudou Debito. If you are picked up by police in Japan, Debito explains that [14]:

You are in for a rough time. There is no writ of Habeas Corpus in Japan, which means Japanese police can hold you for up to 23 days (3 days’ initial interrogation, extendable by 10 days a maximum of twice if a judge approves. Which he will–judges rarely deny public prosecutors the privilege unless a lawyer intervenes.). There have been cases of extraction of information (signed confessions that detainees could not read) through physical and mental duress (beatings, lack of sleep and basic amenities, denial of outside communication, consular contact, or legal counsel) carried out by chain-smoking tag-team interrogators. Detention by the Japanese police is one of the larger nightmares you can experience in Japan.

More recently, blogger Pellegrini at Trans-Pacific Radio [15] put together a very detailed overview of the problem of forced confessions in Japan, noting that:

Maximum pressure, such as withholding meals, physical coersion, and sleep deprivation, is applied by police and investigators to make sure that a confession is signed.

It is worth noting that the justice system enables all of this. Videotapes and recordings are not needed (indeed they’re not allowed!) in the interrogation room; naturally, there are many cases where forced confessions have occurred. It is likely that a significant percentage of those forced confessions are indeed false. The fact that defense lawyers habitually warn investigators against forcing confessions from their clients is evidence both that forced confessions happen and that defense lawyers are allowed little or no participation when interrogations take place.

It is only against this backdrop of the chronic problem of forced confessions that Hosaka's blog entry can really be understood. The blog entry is called “The hidden ‘trap’ of the citizen judge system: thought checking in citizen judge interviews [16]“, and begins:


Yesterday, in the Lower House Committee on Judicial Affairs, I questioned [the government] for 40 minutes over a legal revision of criminal proceedings to institutionalize “Participation in the Judicial Action of Crime Victims”. In exchanges between the Supreme Court and the Justice Ministry, a state of affairs was revealed in which the legal system would be swayed from its foundation by a “wide range of views from a group of citizens chosen by drawing lots”, part of the [new] citizen judge system. When a police officer is called by the prosecution to testify as a witness, it is permissible to ask the citizen judge candidates and the court of justice: “Do you have trust in the investigation of this police officer?” If you answer: “No, I do not trust this police officer”, then the prosecutor can judge that “A fair trial cannot be guaranteed” and can instigate a procedure in which, without indicating any reasons, a maximum of 4 candidates can be disqualified.


The 6 members of the citizen judge system, acting as “representatives of the people”, under this filtering by the prosecution, becomes a group of only “well-intentioned citizens without any doubts about the police”; this in turn has a huge influence in court battles in which the prosecution argues with the defence over the “voluntariness of confessions” [extracted by the police]. The investigation has the authority to perform a “thought check” on these delegates of the citizen court system, chosen by “drawing lots”, related to issues such as their “degree of confidence in the police investigation” and their “view on the death penalty”, and, without stating any reason, can carry out a “challenge” procedure to eliminate up to 4 candidates. I am shocked that this scheme has been hidden. For the “bureaucracy”, this very convenient “well-intentioned citizen without doubts about the bureaucracy”, chosen from the entire population by drawing lots, is nothing more than a disguise under the name of “participation in the legal system”. If the three elements of the judicial community have concocted these “unacceptable questions” which could impinge on the freedom of thought and creed, we cannot ignore this. Below I have presented a tentative record [of the proceedings]. Starting next week, I will try to put the brakes on this reckless degeneration of justice. Please have a look at the exchange that took place in the Committee of Judicial Affairs, reproduced below.

The rest of the blog entry consists of the proceedings of the Diet session, translated here in their entirety:

保坂 昨日の新聞に裁判所の裁判員制度の手続きに関する最高裁規則の要綱がまとまったという記事が出ています。そこで、質問を裁判員について口頭諮問というか面接でするわけですが゛、この中に「捜査官証言」、つまり警察官等(※証人)が予定されている事件において、当事者の求めがあった場合(※検察側)、裁判長が口頭で「あなたは警察等の捜査が特に信用出来ると思う事情がありますか。あるいは、逆に特に信用出来ないという事情がありますか」と質問をし、「いいえ」と回答した場合は、何も質問しない。「はい」と回答した場合は、「それはどのような事情ですか」と質問する。その回答によって必要がある時には、「警察官等の証言の内容を検討して公平に判断することが出来ますか」と質問をし、不公平な裁判をするおそれの有無を判断する、とある。どういう意味ですかね。我々は志布志事件などで警察の捜査も行き過ぎがあるということを随分認識しています。たとえば裁判員の候補者がですね、「警察の捜査も時々、密室で行われているから行き過ぎがあるかもしれません」と言うかもしれません。どういう意図でこの設問があるのですか。

There was an article in yesterday's newspaper about the finalization of the essentials of a supreme court outline relating to procedures for the court of justice's new citizen judge system. In this article, it was explained that the citizen judges would be questioned in an oral consultation or interview. In these consultations or interviews, “investigator testimony” — i.e. in cases in which the police officer (witness) is scheduled to testify — if there is an appeal by the person concerned (prosecution), then the presiding judge can ask: “Are there any circumstances in which you would be able to trust this investigation conducted by the police and others? Or, alternatively, are there any circumstances about which you do not have particular confidence?” In cases in which the answer is “no”, no further questions are asked [of the candidate citizen judge]. In cases in which the answer is “yes”, the citizen judge is asked: “What kind of circumstances are these?” Depending on the answer to this question, if necessary, the candidate citizen judge is then asked: “Do you think you can consider the contents of the police officer's testimony and render a fair judgement?” The citizen is assessed on the basis of the existence or nonexistence of doubts about the fairness of the trial. What is the meaning of this? We are all acutely aware of the fact that there are cases, such as the Shibushi incident [10], in which police investigations have gone much too far. One of these citizen judge candidates might for example say: “Police investigations sometimes do things behind closed doors, so in this sense perhaps they go too far.” What is the intention of this questioning?

小川最高裁事務総局刑事局長 お答えします。公判前整理手続きをやっていく際に、捜査官証人が申請される、また予定される事件があるとわかりました時に、当事者の方から求めがあった場合に「捜査官証人の証言の信用性」について不公平な裁判をするおそれがあるかないかという点を判断をするために、今、委員の御指摘のような質問をさせていただく、ひとつの判断資料となろうかと思います。実際には、裁判体が判断されますから具体的どうなるかというのは裁判体の判断となります。

(Detective Superintendent of the Secretariat of the Supreme Court) Ogawa
I will answer the question. In cases in which there are arrangement procedures preceding the public trial, when it becomes known either that applications are being processed for an investigator witness, or that an investigator is scheduled to appear, in cases in which the party concerned has made a request, in order to assess whether or not there is any possibility that judgement about the “confidence in the verbal testimony of the investigator witness” will be dealt with in an unfair manner, we are right now considering questions indicated by the committee member (Hosaka) so that we can use it as one reference. In a practical sense, the court makes the decision, so how things will turn out, in concrete terms, is really a judgement to be made by the court.

保坂 法務省刑事局長に聞きたいのですが、今のような捜査官が証人として出てくる場合には、おそらく自白はしている、しかし、その後に否認に転じて、「自白調書」の任意性に疑いがある場合、こういうことが多いんではないかと思います。裁判所が設問していますよね。「警察官の捜査等にどれだけ信用性を置いているかどうか」と。「私は全然信用していないんだ。最近は相当密室でおかしいと思う」と面接で言っていたら、検察官はこの裁判員候補者を忌避出来るんですね。忌避する理由になりますか。

I am asking this question to the Detective Superintendent of the Justice Ministry. In cases such as you just mentioned, in which the investigator appears as a witness, probably a confession has been made. However, what about cases in which, after the [confession], the person switches their position and issues a denial, and raises doubts about the voluntariness of the “recorded confession”? I believe that there are many cases of this kind. The court is asking questions: “Do you have trust in the investigation of the police officer?” If a candidate answers in an interview: “I have no trust at all. I think that it is strange, all these things going on behind closed doors recently,” then the investigator is able to challenge the candidacy of the citizen judge. Could this be a reason for disqualification?

(そんな事が出来るのか? と与党席からの声。「忌避出来るんですよ。理由を示さずに4人まで忌避出来るんです。警察官はどうかなあという人に対して検察側がどう判断するかどうか」と保坂議場の与党議員に説明)

(Someone from the ruling party [LDP] exclaims: They can do that? Hosaka's explanation to this ruling party member: “Yes, they can issue challenges. Without giving a reason, they can disqualify up to 4 candidates. How will the prosecution judge people who have doubts in their mind about the police officer?”)

小津法務省刑事局長  この件、検察官がどのような場合に理由を示さないで忌避するかどうかということは、私どもで何も具体的に検討しているわけではないわけで、個々の事件における検察官の判断ということになろうかと思います。

(Detective Superintendent of the Secretariat of the Supreme Court) Ogawa On the question of under what circumstances an investigator can, without indicating any reason, challenge [the candidacy of a citizen judge], we really haven't done any concrete investigation on this. I think it is up to the judgement of the investigator in each individual case.

保坂 法務大臣に感想を求めたいんですよ。裁判員というのはくじで選ばれるんですよね。衆議院選挙の有権者名簿で。しかし、その中で、「警察の捜査はちょっと私は信用出来ないですよ」と言った場合には、検察側から「この人、忌避」と出るかもしれない。……忌避の対象になってくると、本当に国民全体の意見を代表して、まんべんなく汲み上げた制度になるのかどうか、大変不安になってきたんですね。その点、どうですか。

I request that the Minister of Justice share his thoughts on this. The citizen judges are chosen by drawing lots. From a list of registered voters in the Lower House elections. However, in this process, in cases in which [the candidate citizen judge] says: “I have a bit of trouble placing my trust in this police investigation”, the prosecution can declare that “We challenge [the candidacy of] this citizen judge”. The citizen judge may then be excluded. ……if citizen judges become the object of such challenges, I wonder if we can really say that this is a system which draws on an even distribution of representative views of people from the entire country? I am extremely concerned. What do you think about this situation?

長勢法務大臣 裁判員制度を創設する時、当時は色々な御意見があった事を思い出します。片一方は、「こんなのが入るとみんな無罪になってしまうんじゃないか」「いや、みんな重罪になってしまうんじゃないか」という議論があったことを思い出します。

Justice Minister Nagase
I remember that there were various views expressed when the citizen court system was being set up. “If this is in there, then won't everybody be judged innocent?”, “No, everyone will be sentenced , right?”, I remember that there were arguments like this. The concerns that you are expressing now are I believe related to those earlier arguments. However, in the three branches of government, in an appropriate manner, we are working toward a citizen judge system that reflects the good sense of the average citizen, not some kind of legal debate in which people quibble over every insignificant detail.

保坂 重箱のスミをつつくような議論をしているつもりはありません。これは裁判で裁判員制度の中で「被害者」の方が参加されるというトータルなパッケージとしての議論をしなければならない。この「忌避」ということも今、わかってきたわけなので、トータルに議論したい。

My intention is not to quibble over every insignificant detail. What we have to debate about, in a broader sense, is the participation, in the court of justice, of the “victim” within the citizen judge system. As we now understand the meaning of the “challenge” [of candidates], I want to have a thorough debate on this issue.

The blog entry was linked to by many other blogs, with 13 trackbacks listed in the comments section of the post itself. For those who can read Japanese, some good discussions on the topic can be found at the blogs of tokyodo-2005 [17] (with many comments), niphonese [18] and Takano Yoshimichi [19].