Praise for new Japanese jury system

Little marks the case out except its almost banal brutality: Two Tokyo pensioners argued for months before a final confrontation ended in the death of 66-year-old Mun Chun Ja after her 72-year-old neighbour, Katsuyoshi Fujii, plunged a knife into her back. That deadly squabble, however, became part of a radical legal experiment that has held Japan in thrall all week.

Fujii admitted the charge but claims he intended to threaten, not kill – and for the first time in the nation's judicial history, ordinary people decided how he should be punished.

Six citizen judges joined three professionals today in handing down a 15-year jail term to Fujji in the Tokyo District Court. The verdict was the climax of five years' preparation and sometimes tortuous discussion on the introduction of the nation's first lay judge system. The judges declared it a success, defying its many critics.

"It was a precious and worthwhile experience," one told a press conference today. Despite worries that the judges, chosen at random on Monday, would struggle to follow complex testimony or be intimidated by the court setting, they have earned universal praise for what the press is calling a skillful court performance.

All six asked questions through the three-day hearings, probing the extent of Fujii's premeditation. Why had he taken a survival knife if he merely intended to intimidate the victim? Why didn't he call an ambulance after the stabbing? In the end, the lay judges refused to believe that Fujii had simply snapped. "That probably accounts for the heavy sentence," said lawyer Tsutomu Hotta, who was watching the case.

Japan's old trial-by-jury system was abolished in 1943 as the country slipped deeper into military fascism. Most doubted it would ever return. Surveys suggest that over 80 per cent of the population opposes the new judicial experiment, and one in four won't serve if called as lay judges, despite the threat of penalties. Even Japan's justice minister said two years ago that the new system would probably fail.

Such was the level of concern when the 2004 law authorising the experiment was passed, that the legal establishment and courts demanded five years to prepare. Pundits speculated that ordinary people would baulk at the lifetime secrecy clause or at sending people to the gallows in murder cases. An overhaul of Japan's stuffy courts was ordered.

Lawyers were instructed to sit up, stop mumbling and use slides to help explain their arguments. The trial was shortened to minimise inconvenience to working citizens. Fujii had his cuffs and restraints removed to avoid biasing the judges in a system that declares over 90 per cent of defendants guilty. Such is the interest in the trial that state broadcaster NHK covered the entire four-day proceedings.

Today's verdict inaugurates a system that is expected to try 3,000 mostly serious criminal cases a year, but resistance is likely to continue. A recent survey found just one per cent of the population feels confident about judging someone. Opening day in the Fujii case was disrupted when a protestor shouted from the public gallery, warning people not to take part. For all its faults, however, lay-judges appear to be here to stay. "This has got to be an improvement on what we have now," says lawyer and reformer Takashi Takano. "It couldn't be much worse."