The future of Japan's judicial system may lie in convincing children like 11-year-old Hiroaki Machino that it's OK to speak up and say what's on his mind.
Machino was one of 16 children gathered at the Chiba District Court one recent afternoon to get an early taste of Japan's proposed judicial reforms.
"I don't know if I'd like to be a juror," says Hiroaki, a soft-spoken, lanky sixth-grader at a local elementary school. "I had a hard time defending my opinion."
Through mock trials and informational events, Japan is preparing its citizens – young and old – to embrace a bold new challenge. By May 2009, the country plans to implement a jury, or saibanin, system that could offer ordinary Japanese even more individual involvement in the legal process than Americans have in their system.
Currently, as is the case in much of Asia, judges alone make decisions on cases brought before courts. Japan's trial process is largely based on written records with relatively little live testimony from witnesses and very little cross-examination.
The reforms are part of an effort to increase transparency and efficiency within the justice system, which now convicts more than 99 percent of those who face trial. The US conviction rate, by comparison, is 89 percent.
"I think there's been a recognition in Japan that the current system … not only may be producing wrongful convictions, but that it's cumbersome, in the sense that lots of trials under the current system last for years," says Robert Precht, a defense lawyer and co-director of the Juries and Democracy Program at the Maureen & Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana. Mr. Precht informally advises Japanese defense lawyers and judges on Western courtroom conventions.
Japanese policymakers say one goal of the reforms will be to wrap up trials in a few days or weeks.
While some Japanese analysts credit the country's near-perfect conviction rate to court officials' practice of only prosecuting cases that have compelling evidence, Precht says many Japanese legal authorities say that their conviction rate is too high.
"Japanese regard the government as okami," says Precht. "They're 'higher-ups', and [Japanese] don't question them. To Japan's credit, the authorities realize that's not always a healthy attitude. Citizens need to be involved in observing how the government works."
Training Japan's jurors-to-be
Precht says other Asian countries without jury systems are watching Japan's reforms closely.
"They may feel that the Japanese model may be closer to their cultural values than the pure jury system by Americans," he says. "Not only is this important for Japan, this is important for Asia."
Since 2005, some 200 official mock trials have been held, sponsored by the courts, prosecutors, and bar associations.
"This system was created in hopes of having Japanese citizens gain a better understanding of the whole judicial process, for it to be something they can relate to better and trust even more," says Judge Masahiro Hiraki, the councilor general of the Criminal Affairs Bureau in the General Secretariat of the Supreme Court of Japan. Judge Hiraki's office is overseeing the implementation of the saibanin (pronounced sigh-bah-neen) system.
Though some experts disagree, others say human rights concerns are also behind Japan's move toward a jury system.
"There's been some concern in Japan of forced confessions and other kinds of police pressure," says Precht. "This new system will create an environment of sunshine, so that the police officers and the police conduct will now be visible in the courtroom."
Nine not-so-angry children
Back in the Chiba courtroom, the kids took part in a role-playing game to simulate a trial for a bank robbery.
Among the cast of characters were six saibanin and three judges – each of whose vote will carry equal weight under the planned system. Unlike the American justice system, decisions will be determined by a majority vote, and Japanese jurors will be allowed to question and cross-examine witnesses, as well as participate in sentencing procedures.
For the first few years, only the most serious crimes will face jury trials. After three years, the saibanin system will face a review.
Reflecting on the simulation after the exercise, many parents and children seemed to sympathize with soft-spoken Machino's aversion to the newly liberalized courts.
"[Being a saibanin] was difficult, and I don't want to be one [when I grow up]," says 11-year-old Taiki Sato, who played one of six saibanin.
Yoko Takeya, who watched her daughter play the role of a saibanin, says she felt the event was educational and helped her to understand the role of a jury in Japan's evolving legal system. But, she says, "to be really honest, I thought it might be a difficult job to do."
But some of the participants and parents sound eager to be more engaged in their country's legal system.
"The chair was comfortable and I'd be OK with doing the job when I get older," says 9-year-old Tomoka Takahashi.
Tomoka's mom, Miyabi Takahashi, was also upbeat.
"I wouldn't want to make a decision just based on my own opinion," she says. "But if we're making a decision based on listening to everyone's opinions, I think we can find a solution."
The Supreme Court's Hiraki says judges will be legally responsible for cultivating an atmosphere that is straightforward and accessible for citizen juries, who are unlikely to have formal legal training.
"We have been doing all these mock trials and have been sending our judges to countries that operate a jury system and researching how to make it easy for juries to speak up," Hiraki says. "We have gotten some positive feedback for having a good atmosphere at our mock trials."
Despite their best efforts, Japanese experts are aware that many Japanese citizens may feel a certain reluctance to speak in front of groups or intimidating authority figures like judges. Chiba District Court's Judge Yuki Sato said training adults to decide on a legal stance and defend it would be even more difficult than training children.
"If adults understand it's alright for them to change their opinion as the conversation progresses, I don't think they'll be so embarrassed to express their opinions," said Judge Sato. "We're going to try very hard to not be imposing and not push our opinions on jurors."