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Asia

Japanese opting out of serving as lay judges

The jury system in the Asian nation is in danger of failing as the Japanese people increasingly decline to pass judgment on their fellow citizens. What are the reasons behind this trend? Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

The system of conducting trial by jury appears to be unraveling in Japan. This is a consequence of fewer Japanese willing to take part in trials, in part because hearings in Japan's legal system can be protracted, but also due to reluctance in society to publicly judge others.

More recently, organized crime groups appear to have found a chink in the system's armor after it was learned that members of the Kudo-kai "yakuza" gang had been "intimidating" jurors hearing a case against a senior member of the organization.

Based in southern Japan, the Kudo-kai has a reputation as being one of the most violent criminal gangs in Japan and the trial at the Kokura branch of the Fukuoka District Court had to be cancelled in May.

Avoiding judgment

Jurors reported that after the first day of hearings they were approached by a man who demanded that they issue a ruling in favor of the defendant, who was being charged with attempted murder after stabbing a man with a Japanese sword.

The judiciary has insisted that anyone threatening lay judges will be prosecuted.

Nevertheless, intimidation does not seem to be the biggest concern among those summoned to perform the duty. "I just did not feel it was correct for someone like me to judge another person," said Tomoko Hosomura, a housewife from Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, who declined to serve as a lay judge in 2010.

"If I was chosen to serve as a judge in a really serious case - like murder - then I might have to make a decision on whether that person deserves the death penalty," she told DW.

"I don't think I could make such a choice and, more importantly, I don't think I should be asked to make a decision like that on behalf of the state," she added. "That's the sort of choice that could affect someone for the rest of their life."

Hosomura was fortunate; she wrote to the court asking to be excused from serving, and because there were sufficient alternative jurors who agreed to take part, she did not have to perform the duty. But she knows it is possible that she will once again receive an envelope from her local court asking her to take part in a trial.

Taking longer

Japan first launched trial by jury in 1928 but abolished it in 1943. After a long gap of over 60 years, the country again reincorporated jury trials into its criminal justice system in 2009.

Government statistics, however, show that an increasing number of Japanese are seeking to avoid sitting in judgment on their fellow citizens, with around 53 percent of people asked to serve as lay judges declining to do so.

Asked why they were refusing, most cited their work or family commitments - including caring for children or elderly relatives. Many were concerned at suggestions that more complicated cases could go on for as long as 12 days.

And having lay judges take part in sessions has had an impact on Japan's legal system as well; while a trial lasted an average 3.7 days before 2009, it now takes about 9.7 days.

The problem appears to be that citizens with little training in law require greater time to deliberate on cases, with closed sessions to consider a verdict increasing from six hours 37 minutes in 2009 to 11 hours 46 minutes in 2016.

The law that set up the lay judge system specified that potential lay judges could only be excused in very limited circumstances, such as a close relative being ill, but courts are interpreting that requirement very liberally. There are also no records of anyone being penalized for declining to take part in a trial, despite the possibility of imposing fines of up to 100,000 yen (835 euros).

No incentives

Consequently, the number of people opting out of their civic duty is likely to continue to soar, analysts believe.

"There are plenty of reasons why the lay judge system is not working, but for me the biggest is simply that our society is not set up for the public to participate in civil duties, such as trials," said Makoto Watanabe, a lecturer in communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University.

"Our obligations to our employers, for example, make it almost impossible for us to take part in trials," he said, pointing out that the Japanese system does not provide compensation to anyone asked to serve as a judge or to his or her employer.

"Also, I do not believe that the law is seen as a pivotal part of people's everyday lives here," Watanabe said. "It's more of an imposition of something that we're being asked to do in our already busy lives," he noted.

"What is needed is a better understanding of civil responsibilities and duties, and that needs to start by being taught in schools."