Japan passed a judicial reform bill in late May that has the potential to spark both major legal and social change - the introduction of a jury system.
The little noticed legislation will enable Japanese citizens 20 years or older to sit on a six-person jury and vote with a panel of judges on serious criminal cases such as murder.
The law, which takes effect in 2009, is an attempt to address a legal system plagued by delays and opacity. Questionable methods of gathering evidence and unorthodox decisionmaking currently weigh the scales of justice so heavily in favor of the prosecutor that Japan has a conviction rate of close to 99 percent. This compares with a rate of around 89 percent in US federal courts.
"The impact of its influence on the criminal justice system will be huge," says Mika Kudo, a staff attorney at the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.
Experts say the presence of a jury will increase scrutiny of the tools employed by the prosecution. Under the current cloistered system, judges' decisions related to the facts of a case normally defer to the prosecutor's wide-ranging and often unchecked powers of investigation. Because suspects can be held for up to 23 days without access to lawyer before being charged, prosecutors almost always succeed in extracting a confession of guilt.
"Ordinary citizens in the jury box will be placed in a position to examine the quality of evidence, the quality of prosecution," says Hiroshi Fukurai, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who is researching Japan's judicial reform.
If a defendant tries to retract or deny a confession in front of a jury, it will spotlight the issue and may lead to an eventual realization that confessions taken under such duress are inappropriate as evidence of guilt.
"Civic participation [in the court process] can effect changes in the way the investigation is done, how the evidence is being collected, how the trial is being prepared, how the evidence is being presented.... It has a ripple effect," which may lead to a fairer system for defendants in the long run, Mr. Fukurai says.
With citizens participating in the process, the court will need to make legal terminology understandable and also make trials amenable to a single continuous sitting. The adjudication process is currently broken up into stages, with up to a month between each. Consequently, court cases in Japan typically drag on for years. Sometimes the parties to a case die before it can be resolved.
Japan's chronic shortage of lawyers is another cause - despite having a population around two-fifths the size of the US, Japan has less than one-fiftieth the number of lawyers. Until last year there was only one institution in Japan at which judges, prosecutors, and lawyers could become qualified to practice law, and the bar exam's annual pass rate was kept at a ludicrously low 3 percent.
To address this shortage, the government allowed universities across the country to establish law schools in 2003 and aims to lift the pass rate for the bar exam so that the number of judges, prosecutors, and lawyers in Japan will double by 2018.
But while the government has big plans for Japan's legal system, the public isn't so sure about the idea.
A recent survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun, a major daily, showed that over 70 percent of respondents didn't want to take part in jury trials. The main reasons given were a lack of confidence over whether they could accurately judge a defendant guilty or not, and a reluctance to judge others for ethical reasons.
"I personally don't agree with introducing a jury system - it's too sudden," says a middle-aged businessman in downtown Tokyo. A degree of knowledge about the law and judicial precedent would be needed to sit on a jury, he asserts.
"I don't really understand why such a system is necessary," says Hirokazu Hanzawa, who makes his living selling curry lunches out of the back of his minivan. "I can't take any time off work to go and sit on a jury," he says, echoing comments from other busy workers.
The government plans a major public education program about the new system before its introduction. Fukurai says that for the system to work it has to be user-friendly and issues that are now vague, such as the degree of influence the judge will have in the deliberation process, must be clarified.
Japan enacted a jury system in 1923 during a brief period of movement toward democratic ideals, but the role of the jury was limited to answering questions submitted by the judge as to whether a fact had been proven. A combination of systemic defects and an increasingly fascist climate in government eventually led to the abandonment of the system in 1943.
This time around, the judicial reform law again represents hopes for a more democratic society.
"One reason for introducing the system is to encourage [Japanese], as a sovereign people, to become more engaged in the judicial sphere [of government], and to get people to realize that in a democracy, society is protected by laws," says Ms. Kudo.
It may take time until hopes for educating ordinary Japanese about civic responsibility are fully realized, but the jury legislation is certainly an important step.
"I think it's good [that the law has been enacted]," says Yuriko Okamoto, a worker with a nonprofit organization. "I'd like to see what it's like to be on a jury - I wouldn't be indifferent about it," she says.
• Sanae Kawanaka contributed to this report.