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Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa believes Japan’s justice and judicial systems need reforms to adapt to the changing times after recent years highlighted shortcomings in the ministry’s administration that have drawn public criticism in Japan and from abroad.

In her quest to change the status quo, Kamikawa, since reassuming her position as justice minister, has vowed to make the system “more familiar to the public.”

In a recent interview, the minister vowed to review longstanding practices in the ministry’s offices in Japan and abroad in the hope of regaining the public’s trust in judicial administration while aiming towards “creating a society where no one is left isolated.”

In her agenda, Kamikawa also put emphasis on improving the policies affecting foreign nationals residing in Japan.

What follows are excerpts from the interview on Kamikawa’s planned steps to reform the justice and judicial systems.

Rebuilding public trust with internal reforms

When re-assuming her position as justice chief in September, Kamikawa found herself caught in the midst of chaos spawned by a gambling scandal involving a former senior prosecutor, and outcry over a controversial bill to extend the legal retirement ages of top public prosecutors.

The situation resulted in the shelving of the proposed bill and his resignation. But the proposal cast a shadow over the independence of the judiciary system, sparking concerns over its politicization. On Tuesday, the minister set up an internal working group tasked with reviewing staff practices by revising the management system for records and documents and introducing a training program for prosecutors to refresh their knowledge on the ethical duties and ideals of their office. The ministry had earlier admitted that it had not kept all records from meetings related to decisions concerning the extension of the top prosecutor’s retirement.

The list of challenges to come under scrutiny doesn’t end here, and Kamikawa links the underlying root causes of the difficulties to longstanding practices, including a traditional working culture that had suppressed the voices of the workers, leaving many shortcomings overlooked. To address the problem, Kamikawa has toured and inspected various institutions within the ministry’s jurisdiction.

“I believe those voices are vital to improving the administration, which will consequently lead to regaining public trust,” she said. “Even in our daily lives, we don’t always follow certain routines and we see societal changes, as well. So what’s being questioned right now is whether we are able to adhere to changes.”

Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa inspects on Oct. 7 the Foreign Residents Support Center in Tokyo, which opened last year to provide legal and other services for non-Japanese residents as part of her efforts to revise practices under the ministry’s jurisdiction. | KYODO
Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa inspects on Oct. 7 the Foreign Residents Support Center in Tokyo, which opened last year to provide legal and other services for non-Japanese residents as part of her efforts to revise practices under the ministry’s jurisdiction. | KYODO

Support for foreign nationals

Kamikawa also pledged to improve support for foreign residents in Japan as she acknowledged difficulties faced by non-Japanese residents who, owing to the pandemic, have become unemployed or have faced financial or other challenges impacting their lives and livelihoods.

She suggested that foreign nationals seek advice on employment, visas, laws and other humanitarian issues, and noted that the government is offering services to them by providing consultation services in 14 languages, including English and Chinese.

“I believe that this information has not reached many people (who may need support),” she said.

Kamikawa added that the Immigration Services Agency (ISA) is enabling those whose period of stay has expired to renew their status of residency so their prolonged stay won’t be deemed illegal.

The ministry is also aiming to submit a bill to address problems regarding detained asylum-seekers.

“The proposed changes are aimed at protecting (asylum seekers) who meet the criteria for recognition of refugee status, as well as revising conditions to prevent lengthy detention of those who do not meet the criteria but cannot be swiftly deported to their home countries,” she said.

Kamikawa said she wants to revise the process for foreign nationals who are handed deportation orders if they are not recognized as refugees, as well as to improve conditions for asylum-seekers who have been detained. She also acknowledged the negative effects of the pandemic on detainees.

The prolonged detention of asylum-seekers has long sparked calls to improve conditions in immigration detention centers that have led some detainees to turn to hunger strikes in protest, some of whom have died.

Facing this criticism, the ISA, which falls under the ministry, revised in September its supervisory measures that allows foreign nationals applying for refugee status and expected to be in detention for more than six months to be released from isolation.

Child support after divorce

Since her first tenure, Kamikawa has pledged to commit to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by improving access to a fair justice system, vowing to improve it so that “no one feels isolated.”

Kamikawa has made support for children caught in custody battles one of her priorities. She has asked an advisory panel to consider law revisions to secure expenses for child support after divorce. Japan has been facing growing criticism from human rights advocates calling for legal changes to introduce a joint-custody system as a fundamental human right. Under the current law, shared custody is limited exclusively to couples who are married and, in most cases, mothers are granted custody upon divorce.

“A divorce has a huge impact on the upbringing of a child and in the current society it’s hard to say that men are equally involved in raising their children,” she stressed.

She also said that further discussions are needed to address issues stemming from custody battles over the children of international marriages.

“I’d like to address the problem from the child’s perspective, putting the children first,” the justice minister said.

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