Japan from the inside out

Japan’s anti-reform reformers

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 14, 2009

THE ONLY REFORM OF GOVERNMENT worthy of the name is that which puts power in the hands of the people. While that phrase has a bit of a leftist tinge, the left’s actual interest in reform that puts power in the hands of the people is usually an impolite fiction. For them, reform involves control by latter-day Orwellian pigs prancing on their hind legs and decisions made by a self-appointed intellectual elite that is alternatively dismissive of and patronizing to the people. Their governing principles are based on a discredited philosophy that flies in the face of empirical evidence and life its own self.

Haraguchi Kazuhiro

Haraguchi Kazuhiro

The only reform of government in Japan that has attempted to take real power out of the hands of politicians and bureaucrats and put it in the hands of the people was either created or inspired by former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro and his acolytes. One of the most important of the Koizumian reforms is due to take effect on 21 May—the start of the lay judge system in court trials.

One is unlikely to find a reform measure in any of today’s free-market democracies with the potential of the lay judge system to reshape society through the devolution of power. Today, decisions in court cases, including murder trials, are decided by panels consisting of three judges. Next month, those judges will be joined by six lay judges—in other words, private citizens. They will have to rely on common sense and life experience instead of a legal background as they serve on a case-by-case basis to hear trials and render verdicts. The head judge will then determine the sentence for those defendants found guilty.

For those who believe that governments and their administrative apparatus should be as small and as close to the people as possible, this measure is both breathtaking and heartening in an age when even those who claim to champion these principles provide them with little more than lip service.

It should also be no surprise that many are dead set on neutering this reform as well as the other Koizumian innovations, including the privatization of an entire Cabinet ministry.

Those with their knives out include the mudboat wing of Mr. Koizumi’s own Liberal-Democratic Party. They were aghast at his policies to begin with, and only went along with him because they enjoyed the electoral ride on his coattails. Others are the members of the legal profession, who, as is the case with guilds everywhere, will attack anything they perceive as a threat to their exclusivity and professional privileges.

A third group anxious to halt the lay judge system is the primary opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan. They claim to be reformers, but other than perfunctory proposals to pass a few laws preventing bureaucrats from working for government after retirement, they support measures that are profoundly reactionary in the truest sense of the term. For example, they have promised to halt the privatization of Japan Post, whose savings accounts and life insurance system provided the funding for pork barrel construction projects allocated by the bureaucracy. Party head Ozawa Ichiro has even called for the reinstatement of the lifetime employment system at Japanese corporations. Perhaps next they’ll come out in favor of arranged marriages and teeth blackening for women.

The following is an interview with Haraguchi Kazuhiro, a lower house proportional representative from Saga who is spearheading the party’s effort to limit the transfer of power to the people in the legal system. A member of the Hata Tsutomu group/faction, Mr. Haraguchi has the Internal Affairs and Communications portfolio in the party’s shadow Cabinet. The English is my quick and dirty translation from the Japanese.

You’ve formed the “Diet Members’ League to Reexamine the Lay Judge System” with members of several parties. What is your objective?

I agree with the concept that civil law should be brought closer to the people, but the gap with the way the system was designed is too large. Five years ago, when the law was passed, the government said during questioning in the Diet that it would gain the understanding of the people to smoothly implement the system. Today, however, most of the people remain confused. It is necessary for us as a legislature to clean up the problem areas.

What are the problem areas?

One is that it is difficult for people to withdraw from consideration as lay judges if they do not want to serve based on their beliefs. People will have to serve as judges for serious crimes that could result in the death penalty, but it is a substantial psychological burden for some to be shown gruesome photographs of a crime scene. It is also possible that they will reach hasty conclusions. I’d suggest (using the system) for lesser crimes, cases involving governmental administration and the conduct of democracy, and cases involving financial affairs. The obligation to secrecy is also a problem. It is strange that people will not be able to say, “That judge is strange”. The experience should be one that can be shared by everyone.

21 May, the date of implementation, is approaching. What are you doing now?

Even some members of the ruling party are having regrets, saying they passed the bill in a kind of fever. Our objective is to freeze the implementation of the system after convening several study groups with experts and other informed people. At the same time, I also want to reexamine our pre-modern civil law system in which investigations are regularly carried out in secret, in light of the manipulation of public opinion through prosecutorial leaks that were so prominent in the Nishimatsu Construction case.

(Note: Under the new system, divulging the content of discussions and the voting results of the panel of judges is punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine of up to 500,000 yen (about US$5,000. The objective is to protect privacy and to prevent retaliation.)

Most of Mr. Haraguchi’s objections, if not all of them, are really excuses masquerading as reasons. For example, he speaks as if looking at bloody photographs is the equivalent of a conscientious objector refusing military service in wartime.

While there is some opposition among the Japanese public to serving as lay judges, that opposition has little to do with peeping between one’s fingers at pictures of stab wounds and more to do with the inconvenience of having to interrupt their lives for public service. I’m not slagging the Japanese here; many people in the West would rather not serve on juries for the same reason. That’s why it is unlikely a jury system could be created there now from scratch if it didn’t already exist.

That’s also why it is often difficult in practice to give power to the people, despite it being the right thing to do. How many are anxious to assume the responsibilities required for the rights provided?

Note also that Mr. Haraguchi brings up the Nishimatsu Construction case: he’s referring to the political contribution scandal that threatens to bring down party leader Ozawa. It already has taken the wind out of the DPJ’s electoral sails.

Interjecting complaints of this type in public issues are a hallmark of the party—they are incapable of discussing governmental policies without blatantly trying to politicize them for their own benefit. The most prominent example was the DPJ’s reprehensible attempt to use Japan’s contribution to the UN-approved NATO effort in Afghanistan (refueling ships) as the means to shake the LDP loose from power.

Once upon a time, politics ended at the water’s edge. For the DPJ, however, there is no water’s edge. Everything is grist for the perpetual campaign.

How odd that the politicians most interested in giving real power to the people are those described as “conservative”.

2 Responses to “Japan’s anti-reform reformers”

  1. bender said

    I think it’s odd that these lay judges also have to decide sentences. I suspect the judges wanted to be absolved from the burden.

  2. Hans Karlsson said

    Haraguchi is completely correct. To entryust amateurs with deciding upon the right to another person’s right to live is completely crazy. In fact, noone has the right to do that. But considering the fact that in Japan you are in many cases already condemned the moment you are arrested, and how the media excels at whipping up the hatred against the suspect, and how easily the public is manipulated in this country, the lay judge system is sheer madness. It’s going to be the middle age witch processes all over.

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