Judicial reform is having a quick and dramatic impact on the legal profession, not least on the number of lawyers. In March 2002, the government decided to increase the number of those who pass the bar exam to 3,000 a year by 2010. Only 1,000 were passed in 1999.
In 2004, a number of law schools were established and the bar exam was revised. As a result, 2,099 people passed the bar in 2007.
Recently, however, some bar associations have voiced concern about the rapid increase in lawyers.
Here are some questions and answers about the situation of lawyers in Japan:
How many lawyers are there in Japan?
There were 23,119 lawyers registered with the Japan Federation of Bar Associations as of last March, a postwar record. Of these, 3,152, or 13.6 percent, were women, a nearly 50 percent rise over the past decade.
How do these figures compare with other countries?
Japan still has relatively few lawyers. Only one in every 5,518 people in Japan is an attorney, while the corresponding figure is 285 in the United States, 477 in Britain, 577 in Germany and 1,363 in France, JFBA statistics show.
The government plans to increase the number of lawyers in Japan to around 50,000 by 2018, by which time one in every 2,400 citizens will be an attorney.
Is there a demographic trend?
The majority of Japanese lawyers are found in big cities. In fact, 11,194 work in Tokyo, while rural prefectures have few lawyers. For instance, Aomori Prefecture has only 51.
According to a JFBA report, in Tokyo there is one lawyer per 1,131 citizens, while in Aomori Prefecture the ratio is 27,902-to-1.
How does one become a legal professional in Japan?
Previously, those who passed the bar exam spent a year and a half as a legal apprentice at the Legal Training and Research Institute of Japan, which is under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. They then became judges, prosecutors or lawyers.
To pass the extremely competitive exam — with a success rate of only 2 percent — many applicants went to cram school to study for the bar exam, a practice that has been criticized for rewarding good test takers instead of producing the best legal professionals.
The judicial reforms proposed in 2001 led to the establishment of law schools in 2004 that offered three-year programs in theoretical, analytical and practical training.
The bar exam was also redesigned as a qualifying exam for law school graduates. And legal apprenticeship at the institute was reduced to one year.
What concerns do these educational and licensing changes raise?
Though a fundamental part of judicial reform, some experts worry the changes have led to the creation of too many law schools — now 74 nationwide — and thus there are now too many students hopeful of passing the bar.
Initially, the pass rate of the redesigned bar exam was expected to be around 70 to 80 percent, but because of the huge number of applicants, the rate is actually around 40 percent.
Legal observers who criticize the quality of education at some of the law schools say stricter entrance and final exams are needed, and that the number of students admitted should be reduced.
Why do some lawyers oppose the plan to increase the number of new lawyers up to 3,000 a year?
Some bar groups, including the Chubu Federation of Bar Associations, a league of six bar associations from Aichi, Mie and Gifu prefectures and elsewhere, claim the glut of lawyers is making it hard for everyone to find work.
They also fear that increasing competition will lead some lawyers to stop working on cases that are not profitable, thus leaving the socially weak without legal help and lowering ethical standards among lawyers.
The newly elected president of the JFBA, Makoto Miyazaki, whose term begins in April, recently said he will push the government to slow the rate at which new attorneys are turned out.
Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama has also said he believes 3,000 a year is too many for a country like Japan, where people solve problems by discussion and not necessarily lawsuits. He added that he didn’t want Japan to become a litigious society.
How do opponents of this attitude respond?
Supporters of the current judicial reform say globalization means more businesses will require international legal expertise. They point to the need for skilled legal professionals in such areas as intellectual property, medical malpractice, labor and environmental issues.
In addition, legal support centers established nationwide in 2006 are still short-staffed, leaving people in rural areas without adequate access to legal services.
The introduction of the “saiban-in” quasi-jury system next year is also expected to increase the workload on lawyers.