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More than five years of study — at cram schools, not universities — has been the norm to pass Japan’s extremely competitive bar exam.

Of the 41,459 people who took last year’s exam, only 1,183 passed. Critics say the situation is fostering people with test-taking skills instead of knowledge of practical law.

To remedy the problem and improve both the quality and quantity of the nation’s lawyers, prosecutors and judges so they can meet increasing demand in a wider range of fields both at home and abroad, the Judicial Reform Council in 2001 proposed the creation of law schools modeled on those in the United States.

As of the Monday deadline set by the education ministry, 72 universities had applied to open such law schools next spring.

The U.S.-style graduate schools will offer three-year programs. Those that clear ministry screening will hold entrance exams early next year.

Douglas K. Freeman, an American lawyer licensed to practice both in Japan and the state of New York, said the new law schools should improve Japan’s legal system and services to a great extent, as more properly trained legal professionals enter various fields of society.

“Universities in Japan can learn a lot from education at law schools in the U.S.,” said Freeman, who studied at the faculty of law at the University of Tokyo and the Columbia Law School.

He said U.S. law schools have succeeded in nurturing legal thinking. For example, in classes conducted under the Socratic method, students speak out and answer questions on the interpretation of judicial precedents. Such discussions get them thinking like legal professionals, according to Freeman.

Japan’s new law schools will introduce an interactive education that emphasizes the acquisition not just of factual knowledge but analytical and debate powers as well. Legal professionals will also coach students in the actual practice of law.

But as more universities jump on the bandwagon and seek to create unique programs, this may lead to a glut of schools, and those that fail to offer top-quality education and get high success rates in the revamped bar exam to debut in 2006 may not survive, according to observers.

The law school planned by Waseda University in Tokyo is expected to be one of the largest, taking in 300 students a year.

Michitaro Urakawa, a professor of law and chairman of the university’s executive committee to establish the law school, said getting a high percentage of students to pass the bar exam is secondary.

“Our school’s fate will be decided by the fields our graduates successfully work in,” he said.

To train legal professionals who can be active in a wide range of spheres, the school will be a “shopping mall” institution that offers a variety of courses, Urakawa said.

“We’ve designed a curriculum that can produce legal professionals in various areas, including specialists in intellectual property, those who work in international fields and those dealing in civil or criminal litigation,” he said.

Of the law school’s roughly 70 faculty members, 20 will have actual legal experience, Urakawa said. This would be higher than the 20 percent minimum required by the education ministry.

As part of Waseda’s clinical approach to teaching about laws and legal services through actual practice, it will open a law firm in which students will listen to clients and prepare lawsuits under the guidance of lawyers, Urakawa said.

Not all universities are planning such a broad curriculum. Many seek to create law schools that appeal to students’ specific interests and meet particular social needs.

Ryukoku University plans to set up a school with campuses in Kyoto and Tokyo, focusing on training lawyers who work for the general public, including the socially disadvantaged, according to law professor Shinichi Ishizuka.

“The number of legal professionals will probably grow (as a result of judicial reforms),” Ishizuka said. “But there is no guarantee that the number of lawyers who work for the socially weak will increase or that legal services for such people will be enhanced.”

Noting that many rural areas have just one or even no lawyer registered within the jurisdiction of the local court, Ishizuka said the school’s Kyoto campus will have courses that help address this regional gap, as well as those that focus on criminal cases.

The Tokyo campus will have courses on international human rights law, gender issues and civil cases.

Ishizuka also said his university believes it is important for students to pass the bar exam, and has thus decided to cooperate with the cram school Ito Jyuku, which will provide tutorial staff and teaching assistants.

As long as the bar exam exists, anxious students will go to cram schools, Ishizuka said. But because it would be “a waste” for them to attend two schools whose lessons overlap, it is more efficient to have the tutors teach them how to study for the bar exam at the law school, he said.

In the runup to the law schools’ debut, many universities are holding orientation sessions to explain their curricula to potential applicants.

One such event was recently held in Tokyo by Omiya Law School, a new academic institution to be set up by an incorporated educational institution in Saitama Prefecture with the support of the Daini Tokyo Bar Association.

Setsuo Miyazawa, who will be a professor at the planned institution, told the gathering the school will also offer courses in the evenings and on Saturdays.

“Our law school will welcome people who want to study law while holding a job,” Miyazawa said.

The school will have 31 professors, including 20 legal professionals.

One of them, Hideaki Kubori, a former chairman of the bar association and a member of the Strategic Council on Intellectual Property chaired by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, said he will teach a course on the relationship between entertainment and law.

He argued that there is a need for lawyers who specialize in intellectual property rights and can play the role of producer in such content-oriented industries as animated film.

“We want to enrich our intellectual property rights program by cooperating with (law schools in) the United States,” he said.

A 22-year-old student from Yamagata Prefecture who attended the meeting said taking the current bar exam would be unrealistic because it is so competitive and takes too many years of studying at cram schools to pass.

“But by attending law school, I think I’ll be able to acquire (the skills and knowledge) necessary to become a legal professional in three years,” the student said.

To offer a U.S.-style legal education, however, lawyer Freeman said Japanese professors and students must break out of the old mold of lecturing in which there is little give and take.

Professors will need to devise ways to promote interaction, for example by letting students form small discussion groups or introducing a system in which students are evaluated on their performance during lessons, he said.

Some universities hoping to set up law schools are having difficulty finding quality resources, including talented teachers, to attract students.

Ishizuka of Ryukoku University said many law professors have been head-hunted by rivals.

“It’s a battle with no mercy,” he said.

According to education ministry officials, some regional universities in particular are experiencing difficulty in recruiting, even though there is an urgent need to train legal professionals for work in rural areas, one of the goals of the judicial reforms. In fact, 46 of the 72 applications to open new law schools are from universities in the Tokyo metropolitan area and urban areas in the Kansai region.

While the Judicial Reform Council said its proposals should result in 3,000 people a year passing the new bar exam by around 2010, Ishizuka predicted that about 60 percent of the law schools planning to open will succeed in attracting talented teachers and seeing large numbers of graduates pass the bar exam, and thus survive.

But competition may not be all bad.

Freeman said rivalry among U.S. law schools has enhanced the quality of the education they offer and led to the creation of unique curricula.

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