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With all the attention now being focused by the government, police and judicial authorities, educators and the media on Japan’s rapidly increasing juvenile crime rate and the escalating level of violence frequently involved, the rights of the victims of crimes in this country have often seemed of secondary concern. Justice Minister Shozaburo Nakamura indicated this week that this is about to change. A new system is to be put into effect from April to see that crime victims, along with their family members, their attorneys and possible witnesses to the crime, are kept informed of proceedings in their cases.

The director general of the ministry’s Criminal Affairs Bureau has reportedly already issued instructions to public prosecutors’ offices nationwide to implement the system from the coming fiscal year. Mr. Nakamura says the change is intended to improve the public’s understanding of judicial processes. That, of course, is the ostensible reason, and in itself it reflects a refreshing change in the official attitude. In fact, however, to many observers it can only seem that the Justice Ministry is reacting at last to the criticism long voiced in many circles here that the authorities often seem more concerned with the rights of criminal suspects than with those of their victims.

That suspicion is strengthened by indications from the ministry itself that the new official guidelines are based on advanced systems already in use in some other industrialized countries. Of course, it is one thing to issue instructions to the offices of the nation’s 58 high public and district public prosecutors and something else entirely to ensure that they are followed. One certain sign of the need for continued public vigilance is the comment by a Justice Ministry official that 43 of the 58 prosecutors’ offices already “adequately” inform crime victims and their families of developments in their cases.

That obviously all depends on one’s definition of adequate, since the ministry also acknowledges that each of those offices has in effect used its own system and that some do not entirely satisfy the right of victims to be fully informed about the progress of their cases. Some offices, it seems, provide information to families only in cases in which the victim has died. The new system is to apply only to “regular” criminal proceedings, or those being tried at the adult level. But it cannot help having a marked effect on juvenile cases as well, and will apply fully to proceedings involving minor suspects whom a family court has referred to a criminal court.

Japan must continue to emphasize the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders over the imposition of harsh criminal penalties on them, but public attitudes are changing as the ages at which suspects are charged with particularly heinous crimes continue to fall ever lower. Even the Supreme Court, long considered a bastion of conservative judicial opinion, indicated late last year that it recognizes the social changes under way. At the end of November, the justices of the nation’s highest court made it known that they approved of allowing summaries of the proceedings in at least some family-court hearings involving juvenile suspects to be provided to victims and their families.

However, the justices do not want any information about such hearings released to the public. Under the present Juvenile Law, victims and their families are not permitted to attend family-court sessions or to learn any details of the proceedings, even when the crime with which the suspect is charged is murder. But further change is coming. In another sign of it, some family courts are now acting on their own. For example, the court that in 1997 tried the Kobe junior high school boy who brutally killed and beheaded an elementary school pupil and attacked several other children, released the details of its decision to the public.

To be sure, the Justice Ministry’s new disclosure system is supposed to make allowances for victims and their families who, for reasons of privacy or other reasons, wish to avoid any further contact with a case stemming from the crime inflicted on them and so do not want to be informed of developments. That possibility must not be allowed to turn into a legal loophole for continuing to keep crime victims in the dark, however. Prosecutors will be required to confirm in advance the wishes of victims and their families. The many who can be expected to want to know what is happening should not have to plead, cajole and even sue to learn the details of proceedings in their cases.

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