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The lay judge system for trials of suspects indicted on charges of serious crimes will start May 21. By mid-July, lay judges chosen from among ordinary citizens, together with professional judges, may have already handed down rulings.

The system represents drastic reform of Japan’s judiciary, which up to now has been run solely by professional judges, public prosecutors and lawyers.

Aimed at injecting common sense into criminal proceedings, the lay judge system has been created with the hope of deepening citizens’ understanding of the judiciary through participation. The advent of this new way of adjudicating some criminal cases is expected to strengthen the public view of the judiciary as a more trustworthy institution.

But participation in criminal trials as judges will be a completely new experience for citizens. Understandably many people worry about judging other people. They may have to handle a case that results in the death penalty.

In November, the Supreme Court notified about 295,000 eligible voters in writing that they had been listed as lay judge candidates. About 118,000 people, or about 40 percent, answered questionnaires and sent them back to the Supreme Court. The questionnaire asked whether the candidate wanted to be excused from serving as a lay judge and whether his or her job, such as law professional, counts as a disqualifying factor.

As a reflection of people’s worries, the Japan Communist Party calls for postponing the introduction of the lay judge system, while the Social Democratic Party and the People’s New Party call for suspending it indefinitely.

Ms. Toshiko Hamayotsu, a lawyer herself and acting head of Komeito, a junior ruling partner of the Liberal Democratic Party, wonders whether the new system will go smoothly.

Supreme Court employees are answering questions from citizens about the lay judge system by telephone. It is imperative that the top court take every possible measure to lighten the psychological burden on citizens. It should also reconsider the strict gag order to be imposed on lay judges, as their opinions will be crucial in improving the new system.

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