JT: Justice seen hamstrung as experts warn court interpreters should be licensed

The Japan Times


Justice seen hamstrung as experts warn court interpreters should be licensed



Courts are supposed to be bastions of justice. But equal justice may be thwarted for some defendants owing to language barriers.

Despite all the various training seminars and guide books preparing newly registered court interpreters for the job, the current pool of interpreters are not sufficiently skilled to speak for defendants and may introduce miscommunications during trials, according to veterans in the field.

Of 59,462 defendants who received verdicts from district courts or summary courts in 2015, 2,694 were foreign nationals from 73 different countries who required translators to speak on their behalf during trials, the Supreme Court figures show. The law requires courts to hire and prepare translators for defendants who are not fluent in Japanese, at no cost to the accused.

As of April 2016, close to 3,840 available court interpreters were registered nationwide at courts, providing translations in 61 languages to and from Japanese.

Haeok Chung, an Osaka-based court interpreter with more than 20 years of experience, known for her book “Hotei Tsuyakunin” (“Court Interpreter”) published in 2015, claims that translators are insufficiently compensated given the high-level skills required for the job. As a result, there is little incentive for court interpreters to undergo professional development to improve their existing skills.

“If they are not able to make a living, it’s unavoidable” that they take on other jobs, said Chung. Courts do not disclose how much court-appointed interpreters are paid.

To supplement her income, Chung also teaches Korean as a high school teacher.

Chung stressed that while becoming a court interpreter is not hard, performing at a high level on the job is no easy task. On top of requisite legal knowledge and language skills, interpreters also need mental discipline to be able to maintain a neutral stand, she said.

While there are many who are fluent in multiple languages, “you have to have a specific personality to work properly as a court interpreter,” Chung said. “If you are too sympathetic toward other people,” you should rethink accepting the job, she added.

In 2016, several misinterpretations were found during the trial at the Tokyo District Court of Japanese Red Army member Tsutomu Shirosaki, then 68, who was later found guilty of launching a mortar attack against the Japanese Embassy in Jakarta in May 1986.

According to an Asahi Shimbun report, during the trial, the court summoned 11 Indonesians who testified as witnesses using two interpreters. Since there were discrepancies in the lengths when comparing the two translations, the court had doubts about their accuracy and brought on a third interpreter to weigh in. The third-party evaluation found close to 200 errors and omissions in the translated testimonies of three Indonesians given on Sept. 29 and 30.

Chung said the problems flagged by the court are only the tip of the iceberg.

“It has been debated for a long time that a public license is necessary and that there have been many misinterpretations,” said Chung.

The Japan Law Interpreter Association, a nonprofit organization launched in 2009, stresses the need for a public or private licensing system for legal translators, including court interpreters.

The organization annually conducts its own examinations to assess the skills of the law interpreters, whose language abilities span various levels. About 70 applicants take the exam every year.

“It’s true that skills vary among each interpreter. Not all interpreters are unskilled, but there is a problem in the system that operates them,” said Roman Amami, who was the former head of the association and has translated Chinese to and from Japanese in court since 1993.

“There is no guarantee for the amount of work the interpreters get and how much they will be rewarded,” she said.

Amami said that because of such a system, many skilled translators would rather pursue stints in nonjudicial fields, and most interpreters who are less skilled take up legal work on the side.

“That’s why, whether it’s a public license or a private license, we’d like to see that it’s made mandatory to have a license for interpreters to work in courts,” said Amami, explaining that public licenses are required to work as legal interpreters in the United States as well as in some European countries.

The organization is accepting applications for its next exam to be held in October, and also conducts training courses with help from lawyers from Kanae International Law Office and others that have expertise in international cases.

On top of issuing licenses and conducting professional training, JLIA also thinks ethics should be taught to legal interpreters.

“It would require some time to make licenses a requirement. But first of all, ethics should be instilled” in law interpreters, said Hiroaki Sugiyama, a lawyer at Kanae International Law Office.

“It’s questionable whether all law interpreters are providing fair translations. If everyone followed an ethics code, there wouldn’t be a problem, but some of them give inappropriate translations while knowing they lack ability,” said Sugiyama.

Sugiyama said some interpreters, like in the trial of Tsutomu Shirosaki, intentionally provide translations that would benefit prosecutors, putting their thumbs on the scale so the prosecution can win more cases in court.

“To develop ethics, we must research the situations in other countries, and present the results as an example” to the government, said Masanari Aoto, a lawyer also involved in JLIA, which will soon launch a study group on legal ethics.

“(Ethics) would include how one must prepare to become a law interpreter, and things they should avoid. They must be developed for interpreters to give fair translations,” he said.

Source:  “Justice seen hamstrung as experts warn court interpreters should be licensed”, The Japan Times, 2 June 2017 

Letter in today’s Japan Times…

The Japan Times

Custody rights remain huge problem

Thank God for Christopher Savoie. I always remember the American father who forced Tokyo to act on the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction.

Years after Hague signing, parent who abducts still wins” in the May 1 edition and “Parental abduction victims hold rally to push for joint custody rights” in the May 6 edition are the most recent additions to my thick file of Japan Times stories on this issue which I began keeping in September 2009.

This is when Christopher Savoie famously, valiantly, virtuously and rightly tried to reclaim his kidnapped children from his Japanese ex-wife by seeking asylum inside the U.S. Consulate in Fukuoka. “Asylum” is self-evidently the right word for it. Ultimately, he failed. The consulate turned him over to Japanese authorities, but the Fukuoka police and prosecutors dropped their case and deported him instead. Prosecuting him would have been too shameful for Japan and cast the country in a humiliating bad light internationally. It was a textbook example of how it (sometimes) takes foreign pressure to move Japan forward.

More attention has been given to the plight of children and their alienated parents since then, but the application of the Hague Convention is not satisfactory. To make it satisfactory requires starting with acknowledging and treating the abducting parent (usually but not exclusively their Japanese mothers) as criminal kidnappers. Active intervention to repatriate the children followed by the prosecution and long imprisonment of the kidnapper are not excessive suggestions.


JT: ‘Second-Best Justice: The Virtues of Japanese Private Law’: Championing mediocrity in the courts

Although it comes as no surprise, this short book review speaks volumes about the inept approach of Japanese courts to civil matters:

The Japan Times

‘Second-Best Justice: The Virtues of Japanese Private Law’: Championing mediocrity in the courts



Ignore the irony of a tenured Harvard professor railing against the pursuit of excellence and employment security and J. Mark Ramseyer’s book is fun and enlightening.
Second-Best Justice: The Virtues of Japanese Private Law, by J. Mark Ramseyer.
352 pages


By essentially settling for mediocrity, he argues, Japan’s civil justice system works better than America’s which, in seeking to offer excellent individualized justice to every plaintiff, actually delivers dismal results for most litigants and is easily hijacked by unscrupulous tort lawyers and frivolous class actions. Unlike American juries, Japanese judges decide predictably enough that lawyers (and insurers) know where to settle.

Even when judges get it wrong — Ramseyer cites overprotection of tenants and employees as examples — they do so predictably, meaning employers and landlords can plan accordingly. Some conclusions surprise: Japan has few medical malpractice trials because the public health insurance system is also mediocre, giving most doctors incentives to perform well-established routine procedures rather than try new treatments, a source of much U.S. medical malpractice litigation. At times his assumptions — seemingly based on the “law and economics” orthodoxy that informs much of his work — can distract: whether doctors are “good” is a function of how much income tax they pay, for example. That aside, it’s a useful overview of some key features of Japan’s legal system.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

Source:  “‘Second best justice:  the virtues of Japanese private law’:  championing mediocrity in the courts”, Colin P A Jones, The Japan Times, 22 April 2017 

Hiring a lawyer in Japan, and what to do if it all goes wrong

The Japan Times


Hiring a lawyer in Japan, and what to do if it all goes wrong



One of our readers wrote in about the negative experience he had with a lawyer in Japan:

Last year I contacted a lawyer at a foreign resident center in Osaka. My wife had signed a divorce paper and forced me from the house.

The lawyer said he would handle the case until the end for ¥100,000. I went to his office and he copied some papers and called my wife.

A year later he quit my case without notice and changed his firm. I went months without any communication from him and he didn’t accomplish anything.

Now my wife is trying to get me to go to arbitration because she says I left and needs help with my daughter.

What should the reader have done in this case?

Unfortunately, not all lawyers handle their cases responsibly. However, our reader also shouldn’t have waited for a matter of months before attempting to contact the lawyer. If a client doesn’t hear from their lawyer about their case for a certain period (for example, more than a month), they should contact the lawyer to find out what is going on.

It’s possible that a lawyer might not contact the client for a while if there are no notable developments in the case, but at the very least, it is important for the client to know what their lawyer is doing for them right now. If the lawyer does not respond to the inquiry satisfactorily, the client had better think about canceling their contract with the lawyer.

What can a client do if they have a disagreement with their lawyer?

When a client wants to cancel a contract with a lawyer, it is possible that the two sides won’t be able to reach an agreement on the terms of the cancelation — particularly on the issue of money.

Every local bar association has a grievance mediation committee (fungi chōtei iinkai) that clients can use to resolve issues involving lawyers. Of course, to prevent any trouble happening in the first place, it’s best to check any retaining contract thoroughly before signing it.

Regulations on remuneration of lawyers issued by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (Nichibenren) stipulate that when a lawyer accepts legal affairs, he must prepare a retaining agreement that includes matters relating to lawyers’ remuneration. So, if your lawyer did not prepare a contract for you initially, you can request that they do after the fact.

What are the details of a lawyer’s remuneration? What is it based on?

Until 2004, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations set the level of lawyers’ fees. Nowadays, lawyers can decide their fees freely. However, a lot of lawyers still refer to the remuneration levels issued by Nichibenren previously. Checking these figures is one way to find out whether your lawyer’s fee is relatively expensive or not. (The old fees are in Japanese here: www.miyaben.jp/consultation/pdf/expenses_kijun.pdf.)

As for how lawyers are paid, usually they receive an initial sum when they start the case (the retainer fee) and another if they win the case (the success fee). Retainer fees are fixed according to the type of case, whereas the size of the success fee often depends on the result of the case. Other lawyers, however, calculate their fees by the hour. Before you sign a retaining contract, it’s important to check which system of payment applies in your lawyer’s case.

If you are looking for legal advice or want to retain a new lawyer, where should you go?

Local bar associations have legal counseling centers where you can book sessions with lawyers. The average counseling fee is ¥5,400 per 30 minutes.

Some local bar associations provide counseling for free or at cheaper prices. Sometimes free counseling is only available for those who have zero or low incomes. If you are in debt and wish to discuss your financial predicament, local bar associations will also offer you a session for free.

Also, if you would like to talk about a traffic accident, you can get legal advice at the Nichibenren Traffic Accident Consultation Center (Nichibenren Kotsujiko Sodan Senta) for free (for the first five sessions only).

If you meet certain financial conditions, you also can use the civil legal aid system provided by Hoterasu (the Japan Legal Support Center). The system was specifically set up for those who lack the financial resources to pay for a case.

In the event that you do qualify for free legal advice, these are limited to three sessions per case, after which you would have to pay. You also can ask for a loan to retain a lawyer for negotiation, litigation or any other court procedures. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that civil legal aid will only be granted for court proceedings if Hoterasu is convinced there is a possibility of winning the case.

Natsumi Fujii is an attorney with the Foreign nationals and International Service Section at Tokyo Public Law Office, which handles a wide range of cases involving foreigners in the Tokyo area (03-5979-2880; www.t-pblo.jp/fiss) FISS lawyers address readers’ queries once a month. Your questions and other comments: lifelines@japantimes.co.jp

Source:  “Hiring a lawyer in Japan, and what to do if it all goes wrong”, The Japan Times, 19 March 2017