A Man with a Flashlight


Japan flirts with trial by jury
July 21, 2007, 1:10 pm
Filed under: Crime and Punishment, The East

Beginning in 2009, trials in Japan will be decided by a jury – or one manner of jury anyway, consisting of three judges and six citizens. Some aren’t buying it:

Critics say the judges will lead the deliberations, deciding what issues to debate; the jurors will depend on the judges to hand out sentences because of their lack of knowledge of the penal code. What is more, the new system will not address more basic problems in the Japanese criminal justice system: the authorities’ overreliance on confessions, sometimes forced; the absence of discovery, which allows the prosecution to withhold information; and a general presumption of guilt that leads to a 99.8 percent conviction rate in criminal cases.

I was startled to learn that Japan hadn’t had a jury system before. But it figures. Even in the flower of East Asian democracy, the power of the state is somewhat steroidal by comparison with the ways of the West. Yes, we are all practicing “democracy.” But that’s a pretty broad concept. The genius of government in Europe and her children is not simply popular suffrage – it is the constant, laborious hacking which keeps the rude weed of state power in check. The nature of all government is to grow and hoard power. Really the heart of the American achievement is not governance, it is the successful check placed on governance by keeping power institutionally – not by mob or public passion, but by the patient, daily decisions which restate the individual’s rights – in the hands of each American.

That, of course, is an America that many in her government understand dimly at best. And the Cheneys of this world, not at all.

But returning to the Japanese move towards juries – many Japanese don’t really see the benefit of them at all. That’s what policeman and courts are for, aren’t they? To tell us who must be punished and how?

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