The atmosphere of heated argument lingers ghostlike within a restored prewar courtroom of the Yokohama District Court, where 12 chairs for the jury face those of the prosecution and defense.

The art deco courtroom, now located in the campus museum of the private Yokohama academic institution Toin Gakuen, is one of two remaining jury galleries in Japan. The Yokohama District Court was the venue for 36 jury trials between 1928 and 1943 under a short-lived and limited jury system.

“This courtroom is one of the few remaining witnesses to the jury system in Japan and thus has historical and academic importance,” a spokesman for the Toin Gakuen Memorial Academium said. Toin Gakuen inherited the courtroom after the district court underwent renovation in 1997.

“The jury system was a product of ‘Taisho Democracy,’ ” he said, referring to the democratic movement dating from the Taisho Era of 1912-25. “It later slipped into obscurity.”

But Japanese citizens may again be asked to participate, although on a limited basis, in criminal trial verdicts.

A government judicial reform panel is currently working on a bill to create a new jury system. The bill, which would put citizens selected at random under the guidance of judges in major criminal trials, is expected to be submitted to the ordinary Diet session starting later this month.

Although not widely known, 500 criminal cases were tried before 71 courts where juries were present during the jury system’s short and restricted existence.

In fact, a jury law is still on the books even though jury trials were shelved by a wartime legal provision.

“The proposed public involvement in trials is a regression from the ideal of the jury system based on the 80-year-old jury law,” said Chihiro Isa, an award-winning nonfiction writer and one of the country’s top experts on the jury system. He served on a criminal trial jury in Okinawa in the 1960s, when the prefecture was under U.S. rule.

“The essence of the system lies in the absolute independence of juries from judges,” he said. “It would be better to revive the jury law, which is still on the books.”

Isa argued that if judges and ordinary citizens work together in handing down verdicts in a closed room, judges, who are considered elite, could easily control juries due to their legal experience.

The jury law that was enacted in 1923 and remains on the books came into force under the initiative of then Prime Minister Takashi Hara amid the political and social reform movement during the Taisho Era. After a five-year preparatory period, the system was formally launched in 1928.

The early 20th century democracy movement led to enactment of the universal male suffrage law in 1925, the rise of party politics and the expanded power of the popularly elected Lower House.

Hara advocated a jury system in large part due to his concerns about the rights of defendants; he wrote in his diary that guilt or innocence could be better weighed by a jury than a judge.

It was also his belief that wrongful judgments could spark public distrust in the justice system, and thus ultimately undermine the authority of the emperor.

“It was not a coincidence that the jury system came about during the Taisho democracy movement,” Isa said. “Public participation is one essence of democracy, and thus a jury system is an essential part of a democratic society, together with universal suffrage.”

The jury law, however, was suspended in 1943 amid the escalation of the war as part of government efforts to tighten control over the public.

Legal experts say the provision that suspended the law mandated that jury trials be restarted as soon as the war ended, but the law has remained in limbo.

Over the 15 years that juries were active, they participated in 484 trials, for crimes that included murder and arson.

According to Justice Ministry records, 78.1 percent of the trials ended in guilty verdicts. This is much lower than the current conviction rate, which many legal experts say stands above 99.9 percent. Verdicts at present are all made solely by judges.

After the war, government organs occasionally discussed resurrecting jury trials. The Court Organization Law, which took effect in 1947, has a provision allowing for the reintroduction of a jury system in criminal trials.

But widespread opinions by legal experts of the time — that the jury system does not suit Japanese society because Japanese tend to be emotional rather than rational — seems to have prevailed.

The jury system has faced other hurdles as well.

Critics have attacked limitations in the prewar law that allowed judges to reshuffle jurors whose judgments differed from theirs and limited jurors to men who paid taxes above a certain level.

But others wonder whether authorities have been more concerned with perceived constraints the old law placed on law enforcement.

“The government and judicial authorities must have come to the realization that the jury system was troublesome for law-enforcement activities during the 15 years it was in effect,” said lawyer Teruo Ikuta, a former Osaka High Court judge who is a vocal advocate of jury trials in Japan.

He rebuffed the argument that Japanese cannot be good jurors, calling this view nothing more than a product of a conceited judicial elite. The conviction rate under the Japanese jury system was roughly equal to that of Western countries, he noted.

“Even most lawyers, who must stand up for citizens’ rights, are against the jury system,” he said, “because trials decided by judges are easier and more predictable.”

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