As far as civic duties go, most Japanese would probably say voting is the most serious. But last month, a contender emerged with the first trial under the lay judge system.
Last November, the Supreme Court notified some 295,000 randomly chosen voters that they might be called upon to participate in the judicial system as lay judges by the end of this year.
Three of them told The Japan Times that they observed the first two lay judge court sessions in August with great interest and anxiety, but found that watching the new system in action helped alleviate some of their concerns.
The first, a murder trial in the Tokyo District Court from Aug. 3 to 6, was a baptism of fire for the lay judges, who were scrutinized by the media. But the three said that listening to the remarks made by the lay judges after the trial ended helped them better grasp what it might feel like to sit on the bench.
“I was relieved to hear the lay judges say that the professional judges explained what they weren’t able to understand,” said Mayuko Takahashi, 25, a shop clerk at a clothing store in the Kanto region. “If it’s easy to comprehend, then maybe I can follow it.”
She said the Tokyo trial eased her concern. Never before having experienced the court system, Takahashi wondered if the proceedings might be beyond her.
Previously, criminal trials were handled solely by professional judges. Under the lay judge system, six randomly chosen citizens preside with three professional judges to decide the facts of a case and the punishment in the event of a conviction.
According to the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office, as of Aug. 28, there were 493 cases eligible for lay judge trials since the system took effect May 21.
Around 20 new cases, including one that began Wednesday in the Aomori District Court, are to follow this month and in October in district courts nationwide.
Takahashi recalled how shocked she was when she received the notice from the top court that she was listed as a prospective lay judge.
“I knew through movies that people in other countries take part in trials, but I never thought I would,” she said.
But since she was notified, Takahashi has followed news reports on the lay judge system. As none of her family or friends received the same notice, she came to realize the unique position she was in.
“Part of me feels that if I get selected, it will be a very valuable experience. And I am curious about how the court works. But then it’s bothersome too, that I have to go to court,” she said.
As she followed the first case in Tokyo, Takahashi was impressed to find that the first lay judge to question the accused from the bench was a young woman. In fact, all six lay judges actively participated and later encouraged others to participate.
Nevertheless, Takahashi is still worried.
“I’m scared at the thought of having to see someone accused of a serious crime and having to learn about the case in detail,” she said. “I feel maybe it’s not bad to do it once, but then, the thought of having to see the face of the accused, or to hear details about an alleged crime is a bit scary,” she said.
Satoshi Yamada, 65, a retired company employee in the Tokai region who now has a part-time job, began studying the system in great depth, and even began clipping out and filing articles, after being informed that he was listed as a prospective lay judge.
But the more he learned about the system, Yamada said, the more nervous he became.
“I don’t know if I can decide whether the accused is guilty or not without any legal knowledge, and I’m worried about whether I can determine a sentence even if the court shows us reference materials from past judgments,” he said.
Yamada followed the Tokyo case very closely to understand the trial process.
“I want to appreciate the great pains the lay judges have taken,” Yamada said via e-mail. “They said it was a good experience and that there was a sense of accomplishment, but those four days must have been very stressful.”
At the news conference after the trial, some lay judges said they felt there was no such thing as a perfect verdict but that it was important for the six lay and three professional judges to cooperate and come to a decision together. They also said the environment was conducive to a candid discussion. These comments left a strong impression, Yamada said.
“I do feel that taking part in the judicial system is necessary,” he said. “Considering Japan’s extremely high conviction rate, this may help prevent wrongful accusations.”
Toshiaki Tanabe, 52, was even more positive about facing his new duty.
“I appreciated the comments by the lay judges. They encouraged us to participate when we are chosen, because it was a good experience,” said Tanabe, a musician in the Tohoku region who also teaches at a university.
Unlike Takahashi and Yamada, who were stunned to receive the notice from the court, Tanabe said he felt pleased and proud to be among the first pool of prospective jurors in the country’s first year of the new system.
“I felt we’ve waited too long to participate in the court system,” he said.
Having experience with the legal system as the plaintiff in small claims court, Tanabe’s interest in the lay judge system was sparked by his lawyer, who has advocated the system for the past few years.
Tanabe wonders if the lay judge system will take root, as its introduction was promoted and decided by the authorities, unlike other countries, where serving is considered a civic right.
Still, he believes public participation itself is a good thing, and he wants to be chosen to serve.
“It will be very interesting to see how professional judges and prosecutors think and function,” he said.
The three candidates interviewed for this article were given fictitious names, and their places of residence were not specified because the law prohibits them from identifying themselves in the media as prospective lay judges.
Nationwide schedule for lay judge cases in September
Compiled from previous news reports
Sept.2-4: Aomori District Court
A 22-year-old man stands accused of entering a woman’s apartment, raping her and robbing her of ¥14,000 in 2006 when he was a minor, and more recent home invasions and a sexual assault.
Sept. 7-9: Kobe District Court
A 40-year-old man has been charged with attempted murder after allegedly hitting his father in the head with a glass ashtray.
Sept. 8-9: Osaka District Court
A 57-year-old man has been charged with smuggling 1.8 kg of stimulants into Japan from China via Kansai airport with a 27-year-old man.
Sept. 8-9: Yamaguchi District Court
A 63-year-old man stands accused of attempting to murder his 60-year-old bedridden wife.
Sept. 8-11: Saitama District Court
A 20-year-old Filipino man stands accused of mugging people and taking money and a laptop computer with help from two minors.
Sept. 9-11: Fukuoka District Court
A 39-year-old man is accused of smuggling 469 grams of stimulants into Japan from Iran via Narita airport.
Sept. 14-16: Wakayama District Court
A 54-year-old man has been charged with robbing and murdering a 68-year-old neighbor.
Sept. 14-18: Chiba District Court
A 49-year-old man has been charged with burglary resulting in injury after allegedly stealing underwear being hung out to dry on an apartment balcony and biting a witness who tried to stop him from fleeing by car.
Sept. 15-17: Takamatsu District Court, Kagawa Prefecture
A 40-year-old man has been charged with arson after allegedly torching his living room.
Sept. 15-18: Fukuoka District Court
A 78-year-old man has been charged with stabbing his 49-year-old son to death.
Sept. 15-18: Tsu District Court, Mie Prefecture
A 23-year-old man has been charged with robbing a convenience store of ¥270,000 and wounding the shop owner with a metal bat.
Sept. 28-30: Chiba District Court
A 23-year-old Korean student has been charged with bringing 3.5 kg of stimulants from Canada into Japan.
Sept. 29-Oct. 1: Yokohama District Court
A 53-year-old man has been charged with stabbing a 37-year-old woman to death in a taxi.