Monday, November 9, 2009

Ambivalence towards Japan's New Jury System

Until this year, Japan was one of the only major industrialized democracies to use bench trials (trials by a judge or judges) in all criminal and civil cases [1]. To align Japan with the international standard, the Diet passed a law in 2004, effective this year, instituting a “lay judge” system [2]. Under the new system, panels of three professional judges and six “lay judges” chosen by lottery from the voter rolls try crimes punishable by death or life imprisonment [3]. Majority vote determines the verdict, with the stipulation that the panel cannot find the defendant guilty if all three professional judges are opposed [4]. Sentencing takes place through a more complicated formula. Although a majority vote (including at least one judge) can decide the sentence, because sentencing is not a yes/no proposition, situations arise in which no particular sentence has a majority. In this case, votes for the harshest sentence are added to votes for the second harshest sentence. If this creates a majority including at least one judge, the second harshest sentence will stand. If not, the votes for the first and second harshest sentences will be added to those for the third harshest sentence, and so on, until a majority including at least one judge is reached [5].

Attitudes towards the new system are ambivalent at best—a government survey conducted in 2008 on 10,000 people nationwide found that over 80% of respondents did not want to participate [6]. Nearly 40% of respondents in another survey expressed doubts that lay judges could make judgments as accurate and just as those of professional judges [7].

However, this does not mean that the new system is doomed to failure. Although these figures are high, not wanting to participate as a juror and lack of faith in the jury system are not unique to Japan. In the United States, reluctant jurors may request postponement or simply fail to appear for duty. Rates vary across districts, but a Florida court reported that more than 40% of those called for jury duty deferred or were truant. (Although some deferrers may have wished to serve, many jurors who did show up were no doubt reluctant.) [8]. Other countries have even higher rates; polls in Spain report that over 60% of respondents do not want to serve [9]. And although Americans, Brits, and Australians are documented as preferring jury trials to bench trials, a majority of Belgians and Spaniards respond that they prefer bench trials [10]. This preference has not led to the elimination of jury trials in either country—reluctance to serve and lack of faith in outcomes can coexist comfortably with a jury system. While public opinion may change the shape of Japan’s jury system, the system itself is here to stay, despite citizens’ ambivalent attitudes.

1. The Jury is Out, in The Economist. London: February 14, 2009.

2. Saibanin no Sanka suru Keiji Saiban ni Kansuru Houritsu, May 28, 2004. Updated November 11, 2007 [cited 2009 November 9]; Available from:

3. Saibanin no Sanka suru Keiji Houritsu no Gaiyou, [cited 2009 November 9]; Available from:

4. Iken ga Icchi shinakatara Hyouketsu ha dou naru no desu ka, in Saibanin Seido Q&A, [cited 2009 November 9]; Available from:

5. 5nin Ijou no Kahansuu de Kettei Yuuzai ni ha Saibankan no Sansei Hitsuyou, in Kyodo News, March, 2009 [cited 2009 November 9]; Available from:

6. Kabushikigaisha Inteeji Risaachi, Saibanin Seido ni Kansuru Ishiki Chousa Chousa Kekka Houkokusho, p.23, March, 2008 [cited 2009 November 9]; Available from:

7. Naikakufu Daijin Kanbou Seifu Kouhou Shitsu, Saibanin Seido ni Kansuru Ninshiki, February 2005, [cited 2009 November 9]; Available from:

8. Losh, Susan Carol, and Robert G. Boatwright, Lifestyle Factors, Status, and Civic Engagement: Issues of Age and Attitudes towards Jury Service, in Legal System Journal, 2002 [cited 2009 November 9]; Available from:;col1

9. Roberts, Julian V. and Mike Hough, Public Opinion and the Jury: An International Literature Review, p. 31, February 2009, [cited 2009 November 9]; Available from:

10. Ibid, p. 42.