Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Japan: Why the Jury Is Still Out: Can the Jury System Work in Japan, Where Speaking Up and Expressing Opinions Go against Deeply Held Cultural Values?

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Japan: Why the Jury Is Still Out: Can the Jury System Work in Japan, Where Speaking Up and Expressing Opinions Go against Deeply Held Cultural Values?

Article excerpt

For two days at a mock trial in Nagano, Japan, three judges and six jurors sit stiffly around an oval table, deliberating whether the defendant intended to kill a taxi driver in a botched robbery.

But the jurors never engage one another in discussion, preferring instead to direct questions to the judges. When a silence stretches out and a judge prepares to call upon a juror, the room tenses up as if the jurors were students who hadn't done the reading.

"What does everybody think?" he asks. Nine seconds pass. "Doesn't anyone have any opinions?"

Finally, one woman questions whether repentance by the defendant should lead to a reduced sentence.

After the trial is all over, only a single juror says he wants to serve on a real trial. The others say that even the mock trial had left them stressed and overwhelmed.

Japan is preparing to adopt a jury-style system in its courts in 2009. But for it to work, the Japanese must first overcome some deep-rooted cultural obstacles: a reluctance to express opinions in public, argue, and question authority.

Under the new system, randomly chosen citizens will sit on the bench next to judges, decide cases together, and hand out sentences. Judges and jurors, with one vote each, will decide cases by a simple majority.

To win over a skeptical public, Japan's courts have held some 500 mock trials. Still, polls show that 80 percent are dreading the change and do not want to serve as jurors.

Under the proposed system, jurors will be able to ask questions in the courtroom. (In the U.S., only a grand jury, which determines whether there is enough evidence for a trial, may ask questions in the courtroom.) And through their numbers, jurors can effectively overrule the judges.

Supporters of the system predict that the direct involvement of ordinary citizens in the judicial process will have far-reaching consequences for Japan's democracy.

LEARNING TO ARGUE

Robert E. Precht, co-director of a juries-and-democracy program at the University of Montana, has been giving talks on the American jury system to Japanese judges, lawyers, and ordinary citizens.

"I think people are seriously going to start panicking next year," says Precht, "as citizens actually face the very real possibility of being summoned, and then have to go into this very strange environment, speak in front of authority figures, and actually be questioned about their own opinions. And I'm concerned that's going to freak people out."

With those concerns in mind, some Japanese are trying to teach their compatriots how to argue. …

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