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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people Ex-wife of John Lennon has died at her home in Spain
News
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Sport
Chelsea
football
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police