Trial By Jury, Japanese Style

October 18, 2007 at 2:30 pm Leave a comment

In the U.S. we’re used to the image of “12 Angry Men” (and women) serving on a jury. On TV shows like Law & Order, Boston Legal and Shark, the prosecutors and defense attorneys must sway stone-faced jurors with impassioned speeches (and, hopefully, evidence!). In Japan, where conviction rates near 100%, a sole judge decides the fate of the accused in a courtroom. There isn’t much live testimony from witnesses. At least, that’s how it used to be.

Starting in 2009, Japan is overhauling its judicial system, in part to give Japanese citizens more participation in the process. According to The Christian Science Monitor, if the new system takes hold, it will give Japanese people even more involvement than Americans currently enjoy. For example, the six Jurors on each case can ask the defendant direct questions. Also, decisions don’t have to be unanimous: majority rules, even over judges (though it’s more complicated than that, of course).

For the past two years, hundreds of mock trials have been conducted throughout Japan to test out the new concepts. Mock trials include role-playing for kids, but also ask important questions of potential future jury members, known as saibanin.

Argument and debate are not exactly favorite pastimes of most Japanese; respecting authority and contributing to overall harmony is the norm, so the cultural significance of this change is high. The New York Times reported earlier this year that 80% of Japanese dread having to serve on a jury. Both kids and adults reported feeling “stressed” and “overwhelmed” by the prospect of deciding someone else’s fate, not to mention disagreeing with or challenging judges, who are authority figures and usually deferred to.

I will be very interested to see how this turns out. Stay tuned…

Sarah S.

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