What does Japan’s justice minister, Kunio Hatoyama think of the looming introduction of citizens’ juries, also known as the lay-judge system — which is potentially the most revolutionary change set to affect Japan’s trial system since World War II?

Not much, if comments made in a Tokyo magazine last October are anything to go by. In an interview in Weekly Asahi he called the jury system “an imitation of foreign countries,” and added, “I believe it is being enacted in Japan because it is being done overseas. I think it will be great if the system works well, and that it should be re-evaluated.”

Interviewer: So try it, and if it fails, then quit?

Hatoyama: Yes, I think a re-evaluation will be necessary after 10 or 20 years.

Those comments, blithely dismissing decades of work by lawyers and campaigners to reform the trial courts, angered many in the Japan Bar Federation, even in an interview ripe with equally arresting bon mots.

Hatoyama complains about new regulations that will increase the number of lawyers in Japan, a country famously short of legal talent, suggesting the annual quota of bar exam graduates should be slashed from 3,000 to 1,500 a year. He also refuses to sanction the sacking of judges in miscarriages of justice such as the Toyama rape case referred to here in the main story, saying, “We shouldn’t kill the bull because the horns are dangerous.”

But it was his comments defending the death penalty that raised the most eyebrows. While saying he “recognized” the tide of abolitionism sweeping the European Union and other places, Hatoyama nixed any suggestion that Japan should consider doing the same.

Why not?, wondered the interviewer.

On the record

His answer is worth recording in full.

Hatoyama: As the Japanese place so much importance on the value of life, it is thought that one should pay with one’s own life for taking the life of another. You see, the Western nations are civilizations based on power and war. So, conversely, things are moving against the death penalty. This is an important point to understand. The so-called civilizations of power and war are the opposite of us. From incipient stages, their conception of the value of life is weaker than the Japanese. Therefore, they are moving toward abolition of the death penalty.

It is important that this discourse on civilizations be understood.

All clear?

The full transcript of the Kunio Hatomaya interview can be found at japanfocus.org/products/details/2609 The writer gratefully acknowledges the work of Michael H. Fox, associate professor at Hyogo University and director of the Japan Death Penalty Information Center (jdpic.org), who translated the interview, originally published in the Weekly Asahi on Oct. 26, 2007.

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