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Yoroku: Filling the gaps in people's hearts

In Japanese courtrooms, anyone in the gallery can take notes. But the practice used to be banned. For a long time courts reasoned that taking notes would disrupt fair and quiet proceedings.

How, exactly, would a pen and memo pad disrupt a trial? It was an American lawyer barred from taking notes in the gallery who filed a lawsuit against the government over the issue, arguing that banning note-taking made Japanese courts closed institutions.

The claims by the lawyer, Lawrence Repeta, were rejected in district and high court rulings, but in 1989, the Supreme Court made a 180-degree turn and declared that in principle, people were free to take notes. "We must acknowledge a lack of consideration," the court said in finally reflecting on the stance courts had until then adopted.

If the American lawyer had not filed the suit, then the ban on taking notes may have remained in force to this day. It seems that the very judges who were meant to protect the rights of members of the public were slow to realize their own errors.

More recently, the Supreme Court acknowledged its mistakes in holding special trials outside standard courtrooms for Hansen's disease patients who were quarantined for many years.

"We deeply regret and apologize for promoting prejudice and discrimination against patients and hurting their dignity," the top court said. This turnabout, too, was sparked by a lawsuit, filed by former leprosy patients. There seems to be a divide between courts and the public that cannot easily be filled.

Two sanitoriums for Hansen's disease patients, Oku-Komyoen Sanitorium and Nagashima Aiseien Sanatorium are located on an island in the Seto Inland Sea. The island is just 30 meters away from Japan's main island, Honshu, but strong currents stopped patients from swimming across the narrow channel, known as "Semizo no Seto."

The view from each side of the channel was completely different: Looking across from Honshu, people saw a small island that isolated patients, but from the island, patients saw a homeland to which they wanted to, but couldn't, return.

It sounds easy to consider a person whose position differs from one's own, but it is in fact no easy task. The gap which must be filled is in one's heart. ("Yoroku," a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun)

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