Japan: The curtain rises on the lay judge system

May 21st marked the first day in the introduction of the lay judge system in Japan, saiban'in seido (裁判員制度) in Japanese. The first trials in which the new system is to be applied will start in July and six citizens will be called upon to examine and judge criminal cases together with three professional district court judges.

(Former) Nagoya District Court. By Taro416.

(Former) Nagoya District Court. By Taro416.

The system is said to represent a step forward in the Japanese administration of justice and with it the country will be on the same level as the other G8 countries.

However, despite numerous attempts by the Ministry of Justice to make the people familiar with the system (through free videos available in the video rental shops or through cartoons like this [jp]), the majority of Japanese citizens seem to be perplexed and quite apprehensive about the consequences that being a judge may bring, as a recent survey by CNET Japan [ja] has reported.

The survey shows that 65.1% of the respondents (361 people in their 30s and 40s) declared themselves against the participation of common citizens in the judging process. Multiple reasons were given but the main ones were ‘I don't like judging others’ (52.8%), ‘I don't want to have trouble’ (44.3%) and ‘I have no confidence in my judgment’ (43.8%).

In this regard, the blogger Usagiinu explains the reasons for his disagreement.


The scary part of the lay-judge system is the absolute confidentiality that must be observed. For this, lay judges will get a 10.000 Yen [about $100] allowance… but isn't this rather mean?
While police officers, lawyers and judges can write details in their blogs, lay judges, even when the trial is over, may not until their death…or even after, reveal secret details of a trial.

Further in the post, Usagiinu stresses two of the most worrying issues relevant to the introduction of the saiban'in seido. The influence of media and, consequently,the necessary changes which must occur in reporting of trials.

裁判員制度と直接は関係ないが、新型インフルエンザに関しても、観光客が関西地方を敬遠したり しています。正しい知識がないために、多くの日本人はテレビや週刊誌の報道を鵜呑みにしているため、このような事が起きている。

Perhaps it has no direct correlation with the lay judge system but in the Kansai region recently many tourists were persuaded to stay away because of exaggerated reporting of the recent swine influenza epidemic. This kind of thing happens because many Japanese, lacking correct information and knowledge, just accept whatever is reported through television or magazines.
So I cannot have any great expectation of justice from a Japanese trial which utilizes only confessions as evidence. Many say that Japan wanted to imitate the American jury system but is this really so? I think that Japan should abandon this new system immediately!

In the report mentioned above however it cannot be ignored that 34.1% of the total surveyed believe in this innovation of the justice system and in the way it could change the degree of participation in public life by the people. Blogger Ajirogu is one of those who support the saiban'in seido as he explains in this post.


I'm in favour [of this new system].
The reason is that, in administration of justice or politics, I think ‘we’ should be more ‘pro active’. Obviously, entrusting this task to others is one way to deal with it but democracy means also participating ourselves in the processes that make this country. If someone makes a mistake or the ability or the discipline of those who judge is flawed we may blame them but, at the end of the day, nothing would change that mistake. Whereas if we were to participate personally we would then take on the responsibility that we have thrust onto others, until now.



Besides, if we keep on saying that ‘we are not able’ and don't do it, we will never understand wholly what judging a person means. Continuing in our ignorance our expertise wouldn't improve and neither would our awareness of the administration of justice.
So I believe that in future people must commit themselves to raising the general level and awareness [of justice] without evading the responsibilities if they still desire to live in a country as they want it to be.

Also Shoryu Akizaka (秋坂昇龍) declares himself in favour and stresses the importance of the participation also of those people who don't have any knowledge of legal matters.


We common people live our everyday lives without being really aware of the law. First of all, most of us are not involved nor do we involve others, in criminal actions, because these are extraordinary cases.
Secondly our responses and our judgments would be based more on emotions and common sense than on laws. I think that this is what [the lawmakers] had in mind when they decided to introduce the lay judge system.



Many of those who are against the new system stated that ‘I can't judge anybody because I have no knowledge [on these matters]’. However, what is expected from citizens is not expert knowledge but, on the contrary, the very fact that they are not mired [in legal niceties].
People with little legal knowledge can express their unique, sometimes unpredictable opinions. These ideas born from commom sense may be insightful and [for lay people] it is easier to produce flexible ideas when the rigid conventions of legal knowledge would be a hindrance.

While many bloggers express their opinions on the positive or negative effects of the system in the immediate future, some such as Like_an_Arrow, express their disagreement after a long discourse taking as a starting point previous discussion of the problem and an analysis of the principles of the Constitution.

いま読み返してみても、裁判員制度に対する私の基本的なスタンスは変わっていません。[…]私の主張は、そもそも一般市民が刑事裁判の審理に参加すること自体がおかしいのではないかというものでした。 ですから、欧米を中心とした先進諸国で陪審制や参審制が当たり前に採用されているという事実も、裁判員制度を正当化する根拠として認めたくないのです。これは世界の常識の方がおかしい。少なくとも、陪審制や参審制などというものは、すでに歴史的使命を終えた過去の制度であって、これからの時代の民主主義を先導していく制度ではないと私は考えるのです。

Re-reading [the post I wrote 4 years ago], I have to say that my basic stance about the lay judge system hasn't changed that much.[…] In my opinion, the very fact that common citizens can participate in a court trial is odd. Consequently I cannot consider a valid justification for this change the fact that the American and European jury systems or the participatory system have been taken as model without calling them into question. There is something wrong in trusting people’s common sense. Lay judge system and jury system belong in the past and have accomplished their historical mission; I believe that they do not represent the right system to carry out the principles of democracy from now on.


The origin of the participation of citizens in the administration of justice was the necessity to protect the people's rights against the tyranny of a King or Emperor and in considering the question the historical context in which a society developed [such mechanisms] should be significant.



However, also in Europe and in the U.S., where the jury system tradition is long, nowadays in the lawsuits where the citizens oppose to the State, the trials are held without any popular juries. […] What Japan is trying to imitate is a jury system that has already become a mere name.
If it really had any intentions to democratize the administration of justice, it should employ lay judges in those trials where the State is sued such as those about environmental pollution cases or about the Yasukuni question.


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