For the first time in decades, as the Economist reports, Japan once again has a jury system (or, if you’re feeling saucy, a “saiban-in seido”), and it is puzzling in a variety of ways. The first puzzle has to do with its sheer existence. It’s not clear who exactly wants this system, or why. Regular citizens, not surprisingly, are not keen to sit on juries. It’s not as if the government is satisfying some well-financed corporate lobby by doing this. Criminal defendants aren’t exactly a political force to be reckoned with. And judges cannot be pleased at the prospect that they will not only have to deal with juries, but will also have to actually sit on the juries themselves.
Therein lies another weird aspect of the new system: the juries are to be manned by a combination of professional judges and lay jurors. By law, the lay jurors are supposed to outnumber the professional judges, and the judges have to give the lay jurors sufficient opportunity to express their opinions. This means, of course, that everybody recognizes that the judges will tell the lay jurors what to do, and the lay jurors will go along with it. Which, again, might lead you to wonder why the jury system is being introduced, other than perhaps to take the heat off the judiciary for the 99% conviction rate that seems scandalously high and permanently fixed against defendants. (But don’t take my word for it; again, take it from the Economist, which has much to its credit repeatedly drawn attention to this aspect of the Japanese legal system.)
No one should be surprised that the saiban-in seido sounds pretty familiar–oh sure, juries, we all know what those are–but ends up being more than a little different. I’ll avoid the low road of making some reference to things being lost in translation and instead take the slightly less low road of noting that there’s a word for this phenomenon: Japanization. As in: “We’re going to take this Western institution and Japanize it. Maybe it will be better, as in the case of the menu at Denny’s; maybe it won’t. But by the time we’re done with it, it will surely be different.”
In sum: perhaps no one can be sure why Japan’s government is doing this. But what I do know for a fact–because I saw it myself, in total disbelief–is that Japan’s otherwise suitably grey and somber Minister of Justice dressed up as a giant green parakeet (canary? parrot? you tell me) on national television to promote the system. (Have I mentioned that it’s not clear who wants this system, or why?)
In our next episode: why are Japan’s Catholic clergy refusing to participate in the new jury system? Was it the bird costume? Stay tuned.