Japan, the Jury

By Robert E. Precht, a co-director of the Juries and Democracy Program at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 01/12/06):

JAPAN is about to embark on a democratic experiment with important consequences for the rest of Asia. After a lapse of 60 years, the country is planning to bring back a jury system — but a huge effort will be required to convince ordinary Japanese about its advantages. Americans can help by sharing their jury experiences with the Japanese.

Beginning in 2009, Japan will institute a jury system called saiban-in. Juries consisting of three law-trained judges and six citizens chosen by lottery will decide criminal cases by majority vote. Japan had an American-style jury system for 15 years, but it was abolished by Japan’s military government in 1943. Since then, verdicts have been decided by three-judge panels, leaving citizens with no voice in a system in which virtually all criminal trials end in a conviction. The return to citizen participation represents a bold commitment to have ordinary Japanese take greater responsibility in running the country. If a jury is sufficiently unhappy with the government’s case or the government’s conduct, it can simply refuse to convict. This possibility puts powerful pressure on the state to behave properly and ultimately leads to better governance. For this reason, a jury is one of the most important protections of a democracy.

The goals are noble, but the new system faces many challenges. The government has already begun a campaign to educate the Japanese about the advantages of a jury system, but there are troubling signs that the message may not be getting through.

According to surveys conducted by a sociologist, Hiroshi Fukurai, the prospect of jury service intimidates many Japanese; other polls show 70 percent of them don’t want to be on juries. Japanese are much more likely to fear retaliation from defendants than American jurors are. They have far less confidence than Americans do in their ability to judge fairly. The government will review the new system after three years. If it concludes that jury service is too difficult for the Japanese to accept, it may scrap it.

Japan’s democratic experiment will be closely watched by the rest of Asia. South Korea is considering establishing a jury system. Reformers in China, Taiwan and Thailand are calling for greater involvement of citizens in their legal systems. If Japan’s effort to introduce a jury system fails, democracy movements elsewhere in Asia will suffer a serious setback.

Americans can play an important role in helping the new system succeed. They can reassure the Japanese that jury service is both feasible and valuable. While few Americans look forward to jury service and many are inconvenienced by it, the majority of Americans who do serve on juries report having positive experiences.

For example, the United States and Japanese governments could organize an exchange program in which Americans can visit Japan and share their jury experiences and Japanese can also visit American courthouses and talk with American jurors.

It’s hard to imagine how Americans could fulfill their role as democracy advocates any better than by helping the Japanese become jurors.