Japan from the inside out

Interview: Justice Minister Yasuoka Okiharu

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 21, 2008

THREE WEEKS AGO, Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo reshuffled his Cabinet and chose Yasuoka Okiharu to replace Hatoyama Kunio as the Minister of Justice.

Significant change is underway in Japan’s justice system, and an even more radical restructuring will occur in the near future. A new system in which citizen jurors join a panel of trial judges to hear and render verdicts in criminal cases will begin operation in just eight months. There is a robust, ongoing debate about how well the new system will work, and some are calling for it to be delayed or scrapped altogether. Other matters in the spotlight include capital punishment (which has widespread support) and proposals for the recording of police interrogations and the institution of life imprisonment.

Last week, the Nishinippon Shimbun ran an interview with the new justice minister. Here it is in English.

A Supreme Court survey shows that upwards of 80% of the public has a negative attitude about participating in the lay juror system. The Social Democratic Party (former Socialist Party) is calling for a reexamination of the system and a postponement of its implementation.

We’re not thinking of postponing it. The lay juror system is an important concept for achieving law for the people, by the people. There is no reason to postpone it just because there are concerns. If we did that, we wouldn’t be able to get down to business and create the reforms that build a new era.

Will you be able to obtain the understanding of the people before the system is implemented?

Doubts seem to remain about why citizens should become lay jurors. But the more people understand the system, the more they’ll want to participate. Citizen participation in criminal cases will make the cases easier to understand and result in their prompt disposition.

A multiparty group of legislators said the gulf between indefinite prison terms and execution is too large. They argue for the establishment of life imprisonment.

I cannot support life imprisonment. It’s cruel to send someone to jail for their entire life. That is difficult for governments to deal with, and a minority of countries worldwide have instituted life imprisonment. However, we should examine how we can make the system for indefinite prison terms transparent by defining the standards for provisional release and objectively presenting the elements for rendering a verdict.

What is your basic philosophy about the death penalty?

I think there should be a death penalty. Japan has a “culture of shame”. There is a recognition that death is the only way to atone for some crimes. The people support the death penalty.

Some people think that police questioning of suspects should be recorded in toto, both in audio and video.

Recording the questioning might have the great effect of preventing forced confessions. But if the suspects understood that questioning would be recorded, they would assume a defensive posture and be on their guard. That would make it very difficult to investigate cases involving gangsters in particular. Considering the actual circumstances of police investigations, it would be unrealistic to record of all of them on video.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations has issued an urgent declaration seeking a slowdown in the increase of the judiciary.

We still have to increase both the quantity and quality of judges. Japan’s judiciary is too small. We have to work to create a demand for judges in all areas. I want to make the government goal (to increase the number of judges) a priority.

Afterwords: Here is a previous post explaining the new lay juror system in more detail, with a discussion of the potential for seismic change in society, and several links to newspaper articles.

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