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The annual national bar exam was once reputed to be Japan’s most difficult examination. Virtually anybody could take the exam, but only about 3 percent of the applicants passed it. Some hapless applicants spent many years preparing for it, riveted to the text of a compendium of laws that became their dearest companion. It was practically rote learning.

Only those who endured this hardship and passed the exam had the privilege of going on to the Supreme Court’s Legal Training and Research Institute, which would train them to be lawyers, prosecutors or judges. The disadvantage of this system was the small number of successful applicants, some of whom tended to demonstrate a narrow vision of human beings and society.

In 1999, the government set up the Justice System Reform Council to explore ways of producing an adequate number of legal professionals with a broader vision and distinct abilities that would meet the diversified legal needs of a rapidly changing Japanese society. In 2001, the council proposed creating new postgraduate law schools and institutionalizing a new state bar exam to be taken by the schools’ graduates.

A total of 74 new law schools were opened in 2004 and 2005, offering a two-year course to those who had studied law as undergraduates and a three-year course to those who had pursued other fields as undergraduates. This year those who graduated from the two-year course took the first national bar exam under the new system. The results, announced this fall, show that several problems exist.

Of the 2,091 graduates who took the exam, 1,009 passed — for a success ratio of 48 percent. This was below the 70 to 80 percent ratio envisaged by the council in 2001. It was assumed that legal reform would lead to the production of about 3,000 successful applicants a year in the future.

This year about 90 percent of the students who joined the two-year course in 2004 graduated. But the fact that less than half of them passed the exam suggests either that the schools gave diplomas to students who did not satisfy the graduation requirements or that the lessons offered by the new schools did not sufficiently prepare students.

Emphasizing applicants’ ability to think, not their ability to memorize, is an important part of legal reform. In addition to raising the quality of education at law schools, it is important that law schools, on one hand, and the justice and education ministries, the Supreme Court and the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, on the other, make stronger efforts to match law-school lessons with the content of the exam questions. Otherwise, law schools will find themselves in the absurd position of graduating students who can’t pass the exam.

The most successful school was Chuo University, which produced 131 successful applicants, for a success ratio of 54 percent, followed by the University of Tokyo (120 students, 70 percent), Keio University (104 students, 63 percent), Kyoto University (87 students, 67 percent) and Hitotsubashi University (44 students, 83 percent). The average age of the 781 men and 228 women who passed the exam was 28.9 years old, the eldest being 58 and the youngest 23.

Of the 58 law schools whose graduates took the exam, four produced no successful applicants. This indicates a gap from school to school in the quality of education offered. A third-party organization certified by the education ministry will start evaluating law schools this year. It can order improvements in lessons or, in the worst case, closure of a school. If law schools in the countryside are closed, it could deal a blow to local communities already suffering from a paucity of lawyers.

The circumstances surrounding next year’s new bar exam system will differ from this year’s. About 1,000 applicants who failed this year’s exam will be joined by about 5,000 applicants who will graduate next year from the three-year course. Even if legal authorities increase the number of successful applicants to 2,000, the success ratio will be around 30 percent, compared with this year’s 48 percent.

To increase the number of successful applicants, some law schools may be tempted to concentrate on teaching specific techniques to pass the exam. It is also reported that students tend to avoid studying laws that are not expected to be taken up in the exam or other subjects related to the practical side of the legal profession. This runs counter to the goals of legal reform. Both law-school teachers and students need to go back to basics. In the legal profession, quantity cannot substitute for quality.

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