New Jury System Will Alter Japan’s Cultural Patterns

For any nation, adoption of a new legal system is a major event. It entails a learning curve, not unlike learning a foreign language, or experiencing another culture. And it is certainly true in the case of Japan’s plan to institute a new jury system in 2009.

Jury trials are a hallmark of our legal system. But did you know that the U.S., Canada, and a few jurisdictions in Australia are the only jurisdictions, requiring unanimity of jury verdicts? That’s Ethan Leib’s conclusion.

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According to him, Japan’s new jury system will be dissimilar to the American jury system. Not only will it not require unanimity, but also judges and jurors will deliberate together. “Jurors can ask questions in the courtroom and through their numbers can effectively overrule the judges. Even though all three judges may rule that a defendant is guilty in a case, a not-guilty ruling by at least five of the jurors will prevail. The only exception involves a guilty ruling: even if all six jurors vote guilty, the ruling will not stand unless at least one of the three judges shares that verdict”.

But for the new jury system to work, the Japanese will have to shed some deeply-rooted cultural patterns, such as okami– the tendency to bow before authority figures (sensei)- in this case represented by judges- and to overcome the overall reluctance to express one’s opinion in public.

What an interesting experience it would be for court interpreters to hear the first-time Japanese jurors hedge their opinions, taking full advantage of the rich ambiguity of the Japanese language!

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