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Chiba lays out new justice policies

by Minoru Matsutani

Justice Minister Keiko Chiba says she will aim to submit a bill next year to the regular Diet session that would revise the Civil Code to enable married couples to have different surnames.

“It has been the Democratic Party of Japan’s policy, and thus I want to realize it as soon as possible,” she told reporters Tuesday.

The Liberal Democratic Party, which had been running the government until August, could never reach agreement on the issue, with some members fearing a threat to family unity, even though a Justice Ministry panel proposed allowing different surnames in 1996.

On the subject of capital punishment, Chiba avoided saying clearly whether she will sign off on executions, although she is personally against it.

“I’m aware one of the justice minister’s jobs is to authorize executions. There are various arguments on the death penalty around the world. I will handle it prudently,” said Chiba, who is planning to quit a lawmakers’ group opposing capital punishment to focus on her duties as justice minister.

A lawyer before she was elected to the Upper House, Chiba expressed concern that lay judges may soon hand down the death penalty, as many opinion polls show a majority of Japanese citizens are for it. The lay judge system, which applies mainly to serious criminal cases, debuted in May. No lay judges have yet handed down a capital punishment sentence.

“The death penalty is one of the punishments, thus it is of course possible lay judges may choose it. I hope they understand the seriousness of handing down the penalty,” she said.

In the past, the number of executions have varied greatly depending on a justice minister’s personal beliefs. For example, Seiken Sugiura, who held the post from October 2005 to September 2006, did not sign any execution orders due to his Buddhist beliefs, while Kunio Hatoyama approved 13 executions over the 12 months to August 2007.

“It may be problematic that the policy of signing off on executions is too different just because different people become justice minister. That may cause people to lose faith in the government’s ability to enforce punishments. However, I cannot comment on whether what past ministers did was right or wrong. This is a very difficult problem,” Chiba said.

She said the lay judge system kicked off smoothly because it serves the purpose for which it was intended — letting ordinary citizens, as opposed to only professional judges, decide the guilt and punishment of citizens accused of crimes.

Asked her stance on the abolishment of the statute of limitations on heinous crimes and the establishment of a new sentence of life imprisonment without parole, she remained vague. “It’s something to think about,” she replied to both questions.

On immigration policy, she said she will try to “give warm treatment” to illegal immigrants if they have lived in the country for a long time, are hardworking and are part of their local communities.

Regarding refugees, she said she will take into account the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugee’s position and try to be generous and contribute to the world.

Also, she said she wants to make police interrogations transparent, instead of keeping them behind closed doors, referring to her Democratic Party of Japan’s campaign pledge to videotape interrogations for use as evidence.