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High school students share views on lay judge system as age of majority lowered in Japan

Students discuss the topic of the age for lay judges being lowered to at least 18 years at Ichikawa Senior High School in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture on March 12, 2022. (Mainichi/Koji Endo)

The age of adulthood in Japan was lowered from 20 to 18 on April 1, 2022, as the revised Civil Code came into effect, making teens aged 18 or 19 possible candidates for lay judges in criminal trials. Though the youth will actually be eligible for the lay judge system starting January 2023, some students who will turn 18 during their final year of high school have voiced concern over their potential responsibility of deciding whether people are guilty or not, as well as what punishment they deserve.

    "I don't have enough life experience or knowledge ..." and "I'm not sure whether I can carry out the responsibility until the very end" were some of the views expressed among eight students at Ichikawa Senior High School, a private institution in the city of Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, on March 12 this year. The girls, who discussed the lowering of age for Japan's lay judge system, were all aged 17 at the time, but will turn 18 during the 2022 academic year.

    Since 2018, the school has held extracurricular activities where students engage in mock trials by playing the roles of prosecutors and lawyers, in the hope that they will acquire logical thinking skills. The eight girls were members of the school's team that won a prize awarded to the top six schools in a national championship for mock trials, which was hosted online by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations in 2021.

    If they are chosen as lay judges in actual trials, the teenagers would have to come face to face with serious incidents, including those involving murder. They may also be forced to make decisions regarding heavy sentences like the death penalty and life imprisonment.

    Mio Fukumoto, a member of the team, expressed worry, saying, "Deciding another person's life carries a lot of weight. I feel like it would become a negative experience for me too." Misaki Hizume showed concern over whether she could "voice frank opinions surrounded by older people." Meanwhile, Mitsuki Kawaguchi viewed the new opportunity positively and said, "There have been few opportunities where the opinions of the young generation were properly listened to. Participation in a criminal trial will be a precious experience."

    The age for lay judges was lowered to coincide with the introduction of the revised Juvenile Act, which toughens penalties on 18- and 19-year-olds who have committed crimes. While criminal incidents involving youth are handled by the family court, severe cases may be referred to prosecutors. Following the revision of the Juvenile Act, a broader range of crimes will be applicable for referral to prosecutors for 18- and 19-year-olds, compared to minors aged 17 or younger, making it more likely for the former age group to be subjected to criminal trials.

    The law concerning the lay judge system raises "being a student" as a valid reason for refusing to participate in trials as citizen judges, and if students make such requests on their own, they are generally recognized.

    According to the Supreme Court, students made up only 1.2% of people who served as lay judges in 2020, while individuals aged in their 20s accounted for 14% of the total. Youth participation has been an issue since the start of the lay judge system in 2009, and courts of law hope to incorporate the senses and experiences of the young generation.

    Judge Akiko Mukai, 48, who handles criminal trials at the Tokyo District Court, pointed out that in recent years, there have been many incidents involving the usage of social media, and said, "The remarks of those from a generation that uses such tools on a daily basis are helpful in knowing the background situation of incidents."

    Another judge, Shunsuke Shibuya, 31, who was responsible for criminal trials at the Tokyo District Court until March, commented, "Making illustrations instead of showing photos of corpses as they are, and other measures to carry out hearings while taking note of the emotional burden on participants have been pushed forward. If they sit in on a trial in advance, they can grasp the atmosphere. School, club activities and other experiences can also surely be put to use during the hearing. I'd like them to visit the court."

    (Japanese original by Koji Endo, Tokyo City News Department, and Jintaro Chikamatsu, Kyushu News Department)

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