Japan is preparing to adopt a jury-style system in its courts in 2009, the most significant change in its criminal justice system since the postwar American occupation. But for it to work, the Japanese must first overcome some deep-rooted cultural obstacles: a reluctance to express opinions in public, to argue with one another and to question authority.
To win over a skeptical public, Japan’s courts have held some 500 mock trials across the country, including six here in Nagano, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Still, polls show that 80 percent are dreading the change and do not want to serve as jurors, a reluctance that was on display among the mock jurors here.
They preferred directing questions to the judges. They never engaged one another in discussion. Their opinions had to be extracted by the judges and were often hedged by the Japanese language’s rich ambiguity. When a silence stretched out and a judge prepared to call upon a juror, the room tensed up as if the jurors were students who had not done the reading.
“I think there is also the matter of how much he has repented,” one of the judges said. “Has he genuinely, deeply repented, or has the defendant repented in his own way? What’s the degree? I mean, some could even say that he hasn’t repented at all.”
Hoping for some response, the judge waited 14 seconds, then said, “What does everybody think?”
Nine seconds passed. “Doesn’t anyone have any opinions?”
After six more seconds, one woman questioned whether repentance should lead to a reduced sentence. “The way the defendant expresses himself and such, it could be viewed as someone who’s not good at it,” she said. “So there’s no way for us to know what is the degree of repentance from how he has repented in his own way.”
After it was all over, only a single juror said he wanted to serve on a real trial. The others said even the mock trial had left them stressed and overwhelmed. Under the proposed system, randomly chosen citizens will sit on the bench next to judges, decide cases together and hand out sentences. Supporters predict that the direct involvement of ordinary citizens in the judicial process will have far-reaching consequences for Japan’s democracy.
Robert E. Precht, an American defense lawyer and a co-director of the juries and democracy program at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center of the University of Montana, has been giving talks on the American jury system in meetings with judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and ordinary citizens. Changing the attitudes of a public used to being passively governed was proving the greatest challenge, he said.
“D-Day is going to happen in May 2009, and I think people are seriously going to start panicking next year, as citizens actually face the very real possibility of being summoned, and then have to go into this very strange environment, speak in front of authority figures and actually be questioned about their own opinions,” Mr. Precht said. “And I’m concerned that’s going to freak people out.”