‘Where’s the justice?!” That’s the common refrain of people who lose in court. In Japan, the answer may be “nowhere,” at least as far as terminology goes.

The Japanese word for “justice,” seigi (正義), is rarely used as a legal term the way it is in the West. It is used in an abstract idealistic sense, in statements about “realizing justice” (seigi no jitsugen, 正義の実現), for example, but doesn’t make repeat appearances in legal dictionaries.

Nonetheless, the government has an institution that in English appears devoted to the ideal: the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). In Japanese, however, its name, Hōmushō (法務省), has nothing to do with justice. Hōmu (法務) just means “legal affairs” and thus might as well be a synonym for “boring” to many people. Corporate legal departments (hōmubu, 法務部) use the same term. Some legal professionals specialize in business or cross-border legal matters (shōji hōmu, 商事法務, or shōgai hōmu, 渉外法務), but again, there’s no direct connection to the ideal of justice.

If you replace “ministry” (省, shō) in MOJ with “bureau” (kyoku, 局) you get what even the MOJ refers to in English as a “legal affairs bureau” (法務局 hōmukyoku). Legal affairs bureaus form the nationwide network of MOJ outposts that administer the commercial, real estate and other registries that are part of the civil legal system.

So is the MOJ’s English name presumptuous and misleading? Probably not: As is often the case with quirks in the nation’s legal system, any confusion may be America’s fault. Under the Constitution of the Empire of Japan (大日本帝国 憲法, Dai Nihon Teikoku Kenpō — often called the Meiji Constitution (Meiji Kenpō, 明治憲法) because it was a gift of Emperor Meiji — there was no formal separation of powers: All sovereign powers were vested in the Emperor, who dispensed justice through judges (裁判官, saibankan) acting in his name. These judges were independent to a degree, but the courts (裁判所, saibansho) were administered by the Ministry of Justice, which was then called the Shihōshō (司法省). Shihōshō is still used in Japanese today, but as the translation for an American institution, the Department of Justice.

One of the reforms the Americans insisted upon was strict U.S.-style separation of powers. The MOJ was stripped of its oversight of the courts and its Japanese name changed accordingly. The courts were moved to a separate branch of government called “the judiciary” in English (as in the U.S. Constitution) and shihō in Japanese. Constitutionally, the judiciary was invested with the “entire” judicial power (shihōken, 司法権).

As a result, as a legal term shihō now has a constitutional dimension that is not entirely consistent with its historical usage. The Meiji Constitution also used shihō, but this is rendered into English using the term “judicature,” one of the definitions of which is the “administration of justice.” Although more obscure, “judicature” is arguably a better translation. The character for shi (司) is also used for the verb tsukasadoru (司る), which means to control or administer, while (法) means law. So if you think about administering the law — and the courts, as the MOJ used to do — as part of an overall system intended to achieve justice, then you could call that a “justice system,” as is the case in the U.S. and elsewhere. In fact, this is how the Japanese term shihōseido (司法制度) is often translated, though some people use “judicial system,” perhaps to be more consistent with the English version of the Constitution. However, derivative terms like keiji shihō (刑事司法) or keiji shihō seido (刑事司法制度) can probably only be translated as “criminal justice” and “criminal justice system.”

To add to the confusion, the Code of Criminal Procedure (Keijisoshō Hō, 刑事訴訟法) uses the term shihō keisatsu shokuin (司法警察職員) to refer to the men and women who carry badges and handcuffs. You might think that keisatsu (警察), being the generic term for “police,” should be translated as “judicial police employee” or even “justice police” but it is actually a generic reference to police and other law enforcement officers when they are performing their role in investigating crimes. (It’s actually a bit complicated, but police terminology will have to wait for a separate article.)

Once a suspected criminal has been arrested and charged, the question remains whether courts actually deliver justice. The Japanese word for court —saibansho — literally means “place where trials (saiban, 裁判) take place.” The individual characters in saiban are also used to express the verbs sabaku (裁く) — to judge or adjudicate — and wakaru (判る), which is a variant of the more common 分かる, meaning to “understand,” but often including a nuance of judgment or evaluation.

Personally, I find it interesting that when expressed in hiragana (or the kanji 捌く), sabaku can also be used to describe what sushi chefs do to fish and butchers do to animal carcasses: cut them up into easily-consumed pieces. Insofar as most criminal trials end up with wrongdoers being punished, perhaps there is justice after all, at least for those criminals who get caught and their victims. As for fish and other edible animals, there is probably no justice in dying for being delicious.

Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto.

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