For the 21 years of his life as a judge, Akira Rokusha lived a closeted existence. From his home in an official residence alongside fellow judges and other courthouse employees, he was taken to the court in a special minibus, and he spent his days off reading and reviewing material related to his cases.

As the years passed by, Rokusha says he gradually lost his sense of being a member of the general public -- which is why he couldn't be more thrilled about the new saibanin (lay-judge) system being introduced in 2009.

"I've always felt it was wrong that judges had an air of superiority," said Rokusha, who is now a professor at Keio University Law School in Tokyo.

"Until now, judges have separated themselves completely from the general public, but to make the saibanin system function smoothly, they will have to go on bended knee and ask the public for their opinion."

But will the general public be capable of giving an opinion -- and even at times contradicting what legal experts are saying?

Rokusha believes they will.

"The biggest job of the presiding judge will be to help bring out the opinions of saibanin," he said. "And finding out facts -- like whether the accused intentionally murdered the victim or not -- is not about knowledge of the law, it is about how and what regular people see from their own point of view, quite outside [the legal world]."

While many countries around the world already have jury systems or lay-judge systems, this is a groundbreaking step for Japan.

"But introducing the saibanin system is actually the most natural thing," Rokusha said. "By carrying the justice system on their shoulders, people will be given the opportunity to think about and support society -- and then we will have created a true civil society."

In the course of his long career, Rokusha dealt with a wide variety of civil lawsuits, as well as family law and criminal cases -- including numerous serious crimes such as those involving arson -- that will from 2009 be tried under the saibanin system in District Courts.

"It's true that such cases can be very brutal," Rokusha said. "But with [nine] people who lead completely different lives and possess a variety of backgrounds and experiences, discussions on the crime will deepen compared with those between just three judges, as at present. That is because it is not just about determining what had occurred, but what possessed the person to commit such a crime."

However, in the most heinous cases, and ones involving organized crime, Rokusha didn't shrink from admitting that the fear of revenge may enter the lives of saibanin, just as it had occasionally when he was a judge.

"Most judges have experienced fear at least once," Rokusha said, recalling how he had a security guard going around his house every few hours at one point. "But the Aum cult trials were extreme examples of heavy security," he said.

"At that time, the judges' official residence was virtually turned into a prison," Rokusha said. "Judges chosen for those cases who lived in other official residences were torn away from their families and sent to the one with the heavy security."

Also, for security reasons, personal information on judges is not disclosed. And that is the kind of protection necessary for saibanin as well, Rokusha pointed out. Although he noted that the law establishing the saibanin system stipulates that information about saibanin, including their names and addresses, must never be given out, Rokusha said that was not secure enough, and that penalties for any leaks of information must be effective deterrents. "If we are going to ask the general public to get involved [in the judicial system], securing their safety is a top priority," Rokusha said. "Because if anything happens even once, people will turn against the saibanin system."