National / Crime & Legal

Ex-judge lifts lid on Japan’s ‘corrupt’ judicial system

Tell-all memoir brings to light collusion, bias among justices

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Abandon all hope, ye who enter Japanese courts.

A former professional judge, Hiroshi Segi, says he grew so disenchanted with what he came to see as the “corrupt” and “ugly” realities of the nation’s judicial system that after 30 years he quit his job and became a professor at Meiji University’s law school in 2012.

“The Japanese judiciary is extremely sheltered and full of bureaucratic elites,” Segi recently told The Japan Times. “In such a world, the principle of strict hierarchy reigns supreme, while any individuals who are liberal-minded and outspoken are purged.”

No longer a part of the system, Segi published a book in February detailing examples of moral turpitude he witnessed, including rising incidents of sexual harassment and obscenity committed by judges, as well as their collusion with prosecutors and blind subservience to the system.

In his book, “Zetsubo no Saibansho” (“Courts without Hope”), Segi brings to light some of the most unprofessional conversations he heard during meetings and luncheons with his superiors.

One time, a Supreme Court justice boasted of his involvement in what Segi described as one of the most “embarrassing” machinations by the top court — demoting and purging junior judges based on their leftist ideology back in the 1970s. To Segi’s greater astonishment, others present at the brunch also soon admitted, even excitedly so, to their participation.

Segi also alleges a raft of “heavily biased personnel decisions” continued to permeate the top court’s management, most notoriously under the leadership of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Hironobu Takesaki.

Like his predecessors, Takesaki ensured judges who issued rulings or published academic papers running counter to his leadership policies were denied promotion and banished to rural areas. As a result, terrified judges learned to kowtow to their superiors and shy away from handing down nonconforming rulings, Segi said.

Less than a week after the release of Segi’s memoir in February, Takesaki suddenly announced his intention to step down, citing health reasons, sparking online speculation that the book may have played a part.

Segi declined to elaborate, saying only: “All I could say is that his decision to quit like that was extremely unusual, given the end of his tenure was three months away (at the time of the announcement) and that no successor was decided yet.”

The tell-all memoir takes on particular significance at a time when public mistrust has grown over the fairness of the nation’s criminal justice system, a controversy spurred anew by the recent release of Iwao Hakamada, the world’s longest-serving death-row inmate, who spent nearly five decades behind bars for murders he almost certainly didn’t commit.

The whole Hakamada tragedy, Segi said, illustrates the long-alleged problem of collusion between judges and prosecutors. Under the current system, prosecutors bring to trial only the cases they are sure to win, making judges feel less responsible for scrutinizing the merits of the charges — hence the nation’s extremely high conviction rate of more than 99 percent.

Even more worrying is that under such a system, judges tend to be biased against defendants, occasionally even referring to them behind their backs as “aitsura” or “yatsura” (“those bastards”), Segi said.

“Such excessive reliance on the prosecution encourages miscarriages of justice,” he cautioned.

Declining morality, it appears, is rife in the handling of civil lawsuits, too. Judges in charge of civil trials, according to Segi, are by and large preoccupied with processing cases as quickly as possible, and thus listen only perfunctorily to litigants’ arguments. This is partly because the pace at which judges process lawsuits is considered a vital barometer of their competence, he explained.

Many judges also “tenaciously” try to talk plaintiffs into dropping cases and seeking out-of-court settlements, Segi said, because in that way they can be spared the hassle of writing often lengthy rulings.

“According to what I heard, lots of people who initiated lawsuits say they felt hurt and insulted by insensitive remarks uttered by judges, who would say stuff like, ‘Let’s just end your suit as soon as possible,’ ” Segi said. In a poll of former civil plaintiffs released by legal experts in 2007, only 24 percent said they were satisfied with the way their lawsuit had been handled.

Segi argues the only possible solution to improve the status quo is for Japan to part ways with the current career judicial system, in which judges are hired fresh out of law school and which immediately begins to indoctrinate them and limit their world view. Segi believes that judges become so invested in this sheltered environment that they fail to recognize, let alone speak out for, the need for change.

Japan should instead follow the example of nations such as the United States and Britain, where judges are recruited from a pool of experienced lawyers and other outside legal experts, he said.

“Truly good lawyers are more likely to be genuinely concerned about the feelings of litigants and able to respect their human rights,” Segi said.

“The dogged bureaucracy and ‘organization-first’ mindset of the Japanese judiciary, as is illustrated in the book, holds true for Japan as a whole, and explains why the nation has continued to fail following the collapse of the bubble economy.”