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Judgment day falls on celebrity panelists

by Philip Brasor

On Nov. 9, one of the long-discussed judicial reform laws was finally enacted. Next month a committee task force will be set up under the Cabinet to discuss its implementation. How should committee members start such a huge, long overdue task?

They might do well to begin by watching Fuji TV’s Friday-night variety program, “The Judge” (7:57 p.m.), which uses supposedly real-life cases to explain the niceties of Japanese civil law. Though the committee presumably already has a grasp of civil law, the show could teach them something about the way the average person views the legal system.

The cases are dramatized in the usual amateurish variety-show manner, and then discussed by a panel of celebrities who predict which way the judgment, which is provided by an anonymous lawyer, will go.

The judgment, however, is not really a judgment in the classic sense. Rather, it is simply an explanation of existing laws as they apply to the situation at hand. Nor are the examples cut-and-dried criminal cases, such as murder, robbery or embezzlement. They involve civil statutes that the average person is not aware of until he or she is face-to-face with them.

Given that such a premise doesn’t offer as much excitement as the explanation of a criminal case would, the show’s producers add the drama. I have seen a similar show in the United States in which people involved in real small-claims cases make their respective arguments in front of a real judge. “The Judge,” however, chooses to illustrate the cases with dramatic re-creations.

The advantage of this is that the re-creations allow the producers to get as melodramatic as they want. In one recent installment, we learned about a retired widower who decides that the house he has lived in most of his adult life is too big for one person and that he should sell it. A real-estate agent brings in potential buyers, and one couple seems ready to close. They talk the old man into bringing the price down a few million yen because of some small structural flaws. He agrees.

After the couple move in, they call the old man in a rage. Where are the carp that were in the pond in the backyard? He took them with him, he says, since he raised them and considers them pets. The couple claim that the fish come with the property and demand he returns them. The old man refuses.

On paper, the case is unexciting, but the acting and the narration have painted the old man as a kind, lonely soul whose only link to his dead wife and the house he loved so much is the fish. At the same time, the husband and wife who bought his house are portrayed as underhanded chiselers who took advantage of the old guy’s ignorance, knowing, in fact, that the carp were worth millions.

Naturally, the celebrity panel sides with the old man, but under law, the fish are not categorized as pets since they cannot move out of the pond without help. Rather, they are part of the property and the old man must return them. The panelists cry foul.

Students of Japanese social mores can also learn a lot from the show. In another case, a young man lies on his job application, claiming that he is a graduate of the prestigious University of Tokyo. He is hired by a prominent company and, after working hard for two years and earning the respect of his superiors, is put in charge of a major project. However, the project involves another company where an old classmate works, and the classmate reveals that the employee did not go to the University of Tokyo after all. Enraged at the employee’s deceit, his boss threatens to fire him. Can he legally do that?

This dramatization also showed the social atmosphere in which the law operates. After the lie is revealed, the employee is ostracized by co-workers, some of whom resented him beforehand simply because he was an “elite” graduate. However, we also see how hard he works and how much he cares for his pregnant wife.

In this instance, the law sides with the employee, since he had already worked for the company for two years when the lie was revealed. There’s an asterisk, however. Lying about one’s educational history on a job application is illegal, but in this particular case it’s a separate matter from that of the potential dismissal. One celebrity panelist commented that, if it’s true that lying about one’s educational history is against the law, then most of the people in showbusiness are criminals.

The program also includes small, trivial cases called “petit” judgments. In last week’s show, we learned that if a video-rental store lends you the wrong tape by mistake, you should get your money back. But if you actually watch the video, then you can’t get your money back. Though it sounds like an insignificant legal concept, it was illustrated by a clever, if overwritten story of a lonely OL who wanted to rent “Titanic” but ended up with a porno parody with the same title. She demanded her money back the next day, but the clerk noticed that the video had not been rewound, meaning she had actually watched it.

The strongest impression one gets from watching “The Judge” is that the law must be immune to sentiment in order for it to be fair. This sounds self-evident, but it is something we never think about until it affects us personally. By exaggerating sentiment, “The Judge” tells us that the most effective legal system is a heartless one. After the lying employee was exonerated, one celebrity panelist said, “That’s the first time we’ve ever had a happy ending on this show.”

Happy endings, of course, only happen in fiction — and on TV.