This is from a fictional trial from Yakuza Judgement, set in Tokyo Japan. The context is a trial where someone is accused of murder. fictional court house japan On the left is the defendant (in white) and his attorney team. On the right is the prosecution team. In the middle, seated, is a witness. Standing next to the witness is the head prosecutor cross-examining. In front of them is what seems to be the clerk, recording everything.

But who are the 9 people at the back? At least in America, I think there's only ever 1 judge presiding over the court. So I'm not sure who these 9 people are supposed to correspond to. Or is it customary to have a board of 9 "judges" deliberate over a case in Japan?

1 Answer 1


The Professional And Lay Judges In The Scene

Murder trials in Japan take place in a regional court called the "high court" which is one level below the Japanese Supreme Court.

Trials of very serious crimes in Japan (crimes punishable by death, life imprisonment, or very long sentences in prison, not just ordinary felonies) are tried by a mixed panel of three professional high court court judges and six lay people who are sometimes described as jurors but are probably better described as "lay judges". The law providing for this kind of trial was passed in the year 2004 and first implemented in the year 2009. Many European countries in the civil law tradition have a similar process.

While proceedings would mostly be in the court room, a court view when all of the professional and lay judges go to the scene of the crime or some other key venue where important facts happened would be far more common in Japan than in the U.S.

After hearing the evidence presented at the trial, which is managed by the presiding judge of the three professional judges, all three judges and the six lay judges deliberate together as a single panel regarding the guilt or innocence verdict which would be rendered in the case.

This is in contrast to juries in common law countries where the jury is independent of the judge, makes the ultimate verdict decision without deliberating with the judge, and interacts with the judge only via jury instructions and reception of their verdict.

Judges In Other Kinds Of Cases

If this had been a serious civil case or a felony case not serious enough to give rise to a lay judge trial or an appeal of a lower court ruling, instead of a very serious criminal case, it would have been heard only by the three professional judges without the six lay judges. More serious cases are heard by more senior professional judges from the high court, and less serious cases are heard by more junior professional judges from a district court which is below the high court but above the summary courts (and marginally superior to the almost equal in status family courts which are staffed by more junior professional judges as well).

If it had been a serious misdemeanor or intermediate stakes civil case, it would have been heard by a single professional district court judge acting alone.

Trials of very minor criminal cases and civil lawsuits are heard by a single judge acting alone without any lay judges, who is not admitted as members of the judicial profession and might not even be legally trained, who is really closer to what we would call "justices of the peace" in the United States. This position is often translated as "summary court judge."

The Judicial Occupation And The Selection Of Lay Judges In Japan

Japanese judges belong to a separate occupation than lawyers and prosecutors that staffs the judicial system of Japan.

Basically, they start in family court or in the intermediate level court of general jurisdiction court called district court, right out of college, hearing smaller cases alone, and more serious cases in panels with justices of the peace or family court judges in a three judge panel. These panels also hear appeals from civil judgments of summary court judges.

Then, they work their way up the judicial hierarchy based upon seniority and merit. Mid-career judges are in courts called "high courts" that handle most serious matters in the first instance as trial courts, appeals from cases heard by junior judges from the level of courts below them, and appeals in criminal cases from the rulings of summary court judges.

The most senior and meritorious and respected judges, of course, are the fifteen judges on the Japanese Supreme Court. For the most part, appointments and promotions are similar to those of other civil servants, rather than being political.

Lay judges are selected in a manner somewhat similar to the way common law country jurors are selected, although, as far as I know, the prosecution and defense have less of a say over who serves as a lay judge on a panel and most people called to serve as lay judges will actually end up doing so (in contrast to the very high rates of disqualification and preemptory challenges in common law juries for a serious case like a murder trial).

The Professional Status Of The Lawyers In This Scene

Incidentally, the legal profession of the prosecutors and the legal professional of the defense attorneys would be different as well.

Like judges, prosecutors are civil servants with their own separate professional qualification (although judges, lawyers, and prosecutors have essentially the same academic curriculum in college).

Private sector lawyers like the defense counsel in the picture belong to the main licensed occupation for lawyers which is in some respects more similar to that of barristers in the U.K. than to U.S. lawyers, both because there are so few of them and because of their typically more trial oriented practices.

Other Kinds Of Legally Trained People In Japan

Japan, like many civil law countries, has legally trained notaries who handle a lot of transactional work including drafting the legal instruments involved as a third-party neutral who also has tasks that overlap with government officials who keep official records.

Finally, like many civil law countries, and to a lesser extent like solicitors in the U.K. before that profession was formally regulated there, many people major in law as undergraduates in college but never take the professional examinations to become a lawyer, a prosecutor, or a judge. Instead, these people typically end up working in managerial jobs in a business with a status akin to an investment banker or finance professional or realtor in the U.S., but with no formal occupational credential other than their college diploma.

The Clerk And The Nature Of The Trial Court Record

In front of them is what seems to be the clerk, recording everything.

The clerk is probably taking detailed notes as an aid to the judges and lay judges in their deliberations, but unlike a common law criminal trial, verbatim transcripts and records of the proceeding are not maintained (or at least, have no special evidentiary status). The clerk is not a direct analog to a U.S. style court reporter who takes dictation of everything that is said word for word.

If there is a dispute regarding the facts found at trial on appeal, at the first tier direct appeal of a conviction, a five judge Japanese appellate court panel of the fifteen judge Japanese Supreme Court would hear new evidence on the matters about which there were allegedly mistaken findings of fact by the trial court of first instance with new witness testimony and the same or new exhibits, rather than simply reviewing the evidence presented to the trial court as final and complete. Sometimes an appeal initially referred to a five judge panel of the Japanese Supreme Court would be reheard by the "Grand Panel" of all fifteen Japanese Supreme Court judges, in which case, the findings of fact of the appellate panel judges are conclusive and binding on the grand panel Japanese Supreme Court which is limited to resolving legal issues.

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