Two abduction-related articles in today’s Japan Times

There were two parental child abduction-related articles published in today’s Japan Times.

 
The first was by Professor Colin Jones, who regularly writes about the subject. Writing about the James Cook case – which was addressed by him before. Here, he writes of Cook’s (what will be) futile attempt to impeach the Supreme Court justices who ultimately found against him. That such an attempt is made at all shows how set in their ways the Japanese judiciary is.

 
The second piece, though not on child abduction specifically does address the treatment of children post a divorce in Japan. According to the Japanese Bengoshi who wrote the piece, the views of a 15 year old and above child will take “paramount importance” in determining what will happen in terms of custody. If aged between 10 and 15 the views of the child are “supposed to be respected” but if the child is under 10 “the probability that the mother wins custody is over 80.” If these arbitrary demarcations based on age were entirely accurate, that would in itself be somewhat disconcerting but the reality is that in most cases the child will stay with the parent with physical custody, invariably the mother. That the article says nothing about contact/visitation for the non-resident parent and also ignores the reality, particularly prevalent in abduction cases (such cases of course occur within Japan as well), of parental alienation.

 
Overall, the content of both articles is unsurprising but say a lot about how the judiciary conducts itself in Japan.

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Japan’s Supreme Court orders a child be sent home in a Hague parental abduction case. Maybe.

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Japan’s Supreme Court orders a child be sent home in a Hague parental abduction case. Maybe.

BY COLIN P.A. JONES

On March 15, Japan’s Supreme Court issued an important decision in a case arising under the Hague Convention on child abduction. Except it wasn’t about the convention, but about habeas corpus. Most press accounts have characterized the ruling as ordering that a child brought to Japan by his mother be returned to the United States, but it’s a bit more complicated.

A pitfall of comparative law is the ease with which familiar-sounding terminology can mislead. “Habeas corpus” is a prime example.

Latin for “produce the body,” habeas corpus is a centuries-old judicial procedure that in the Anglo-American system formed the bedrock of human rights law before the concept of human rights existed. A person subjected to arbitrary, unlawful detention could petition a court to issue a writ of habeas corpus. If the writ was issued, the detainer had to bring the detainee to court and explain the grounds for detention. If the detention was found to be unlawful, the detainee was immediately set free.

In England, habeas corpus led to a number of famous court decisions, such as the 1670 judgment establishing that jurors cannot be punished for their verdict, or the one in a 1772 that said nobody on English soil could be a slave. In the United States, habeas corpus was one of the few provisions about human rights contained in the U.S. Constitution before the Bill of Rights was added. In 2008 it was used to challenge the prolonged detentions without trial of terrorist suspects by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay.

Whittling down habeas corpus

Japan also has habeas corpus. Its Habeas Corpus Act was passed in 1948, specifically to give life to the ideals of the freshly minted Japanese Constitution by providing rapid and easy judicial relief for unlawful deprivations of liberty. Depressingly, the legislative history of the act reveals complaints about the old system — police using pretexts to detain suspects for long periods of time, coerced confessions, judges not protecting people’s liberty and so forth — that are similar to those made about the Japanese criminal justice system today.

The Supreme Court immediately used its power to create procedural rules to neuter habeas corpus. One rule it made required courts to reject petitions if there were “any other adequate means whereby relief may be obtained,” unless “it is evident that relief cannot be obtained within reasonable time.” With this, “rapid and easy” relief were excised from the law.

At the time, Japan’s entire code of criminal procedure was also revised to make it consistent with the numerous new constitutional guarantees of personal liberty and procedural justice. So perhaps the court’s thinking was that the procedural protections of the code would make habeas corpus unnecessary in most cases.

Yet seven decades later, the former head of school operator Moritomo Gakuen, Yasunori Kagoike, and his wife have been detained incommunicado for eight months without being put on trial. Ostensibly charged with fraudulently receiving public subsidies, their judicial renditioning is believed by some to be a way to prevent him from disclosing any embarrassing information about dealings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife. By now, Japanese judges would have approved his prolonged detention multiple times. The Kagoikes’ treatment is not unusual, but habeas corpus is noticeably absent from discussions about him or any of the numerous famous so-called enzaicases — those where suspects were convicted and imprisoned for crimes based on questionable evidence or coerced confessions.

So, it is technically correct to say Japan has habeas corpus. It is also correct to describe the text of the law as providing prompt judicial remedies for unlawful detentions. In fact, habeas corpus offers a wonderful example of how you can state two factually accurate things about the Japanese legal system and still completely mislead your audience.

Old remedy gets second life

The Supreme Court also changed the law through a rule requiring detentions to be “conspicuously unlawful” in order to be eligible for habeas corpus relief. This was significant: “Minor” abuses by police or procedural violations by prosecutors or other judges would not be subjected to scrutiny through a habeas corpus hearing, because the petitions would be rejected for lack of conspicuousness.

It also meant that in the rare case that a petition was granted, the hearing held as a result would be meaningless. Why? Because by granting the petition, the court had already decided the detention was conspicuously unlawful — no bothersome arguing of facts and law in a courtroom for us, please!

The Supreme Court rules created numerous escape hatches for judges to allow even serious deprivations of freedom to continue. Under the rules, a court can grant a remedy other than immediate freedom — for a conspicuously unlawfuldetention! Another rule says that a petition cannot be brought over the objection of a detainee’s freely expressed objections.

Habeas corpus never became the tool for protecting the Japanese people from the state as originally intended. Instead, for several decades it took on an odd second life as an occasional player in custody battles, becoming the means by which estranged parents sought to recover detained children. Courts used habeas corpus proceedings to decide which parent was “better” and should thus raise the children while their divorce was sorted out.

In a 1993 ruling, however, the Supreme Court decided that even in this narrow context habeas corpus was being overused, and henceforth most disputes of this type should be resolved through the less adversarial proceedings of Japan’s family courts, whose specialized personnel had more suitable expertise. This may have had some logic, but if left parents of abducted children with no real remedies, since family court orders involving children — whether about visitation or transferring them from one parent to another — generally have limited enforceability. Habeas corpus had the advantage that failing to bring the detainee (i.e., the child) to court as ordered subjected the detaining person (parent) to the possibility of criminal penalties.

Since 1993, habeas corpus has served as a remedy that might be available after all others at family court have been exhausted. It certainly has not been a “rapid and easy” remedy, since the “conspicuously unlawful” threshold in the Supreme Court was satisfied only after a recalcitrant parent had steadfastly and repeatedly refused to comply with previous court orders. And an order to bring the child to the court meant that whatever hearing the court was supposed to hold was meaningless, since the fact that it was being held meant the result was a foregone conclusion.

‘Conspicuously unlawful’ case

Last month’s Supreme Court ruling concerned a dispute between a Japanese mother and father living in the U.S. Their marriage failing, the mother unilaterally brought the child back to Japan in January 2016. In July of that year, the father sought a return order from the Tokyo Family Court, which was granted in September.

The mother refused to comply, so civil enforcement under Japan’s Hague Convention implementation act was attempted in May 2017. This involved court enforcement officers going to the mother’s residence and seeking to take custody of the child.

The mother continued her resistance, and the enforcement officer had to forcibly enter through the second-floor window and … tried to convince her and the child to cooperate. The mother obstinately clung to the child under a blanket. The enforcement officer gave up and the effort was deemed unsuccessful. This is as far as civil enforcement will get you in a child custody case in Japan.

Finally we get to habeas corpus: A petition to bring the child to court was filed with the Kanazawa Branch of the Nagoya High Court. The court appeared to have done all the things Japanese courts did before the nation joined the Hague Convention — finding conveniently that the child was happy in Japan despite having been born in and spent the first decade of his life in the U.S., and that he didn’t like his dad. Since the child was freely expressing his objections to the petition and given his age and the circumstances, his “detention” by Mom wasn’t deemed to be conspicuously unlawful. Petition denied.

To its credit, not only did the Supreme Court find the lower court in error, it even acknowledged the possibility that children unilaterally deprived of contact with one parent might express views unduly influenced by the other, abducting parent. It questioned whether the child was freely expressing his will, and further noted that in international cases such as these, children face the added burdens of dealing with different cultures and languages and, if they are dual nationals, possibly ultimately a choice in nationality. The court also made a clear ruling that absent special circumstances, failure to comply with a return order under the Hague Convention should be considered “conspicuously unlawful” for the purposes of granting habeas corpus relief.

All good stuff, but the end result was to remand the case back to the lower court so that it could procure the child’s presence in the courtroom and consider the matter further. Given that 18 months has passed since the child’s return was ordered, you have to wonder if that court appearance will actually happen.

Moreover, given that as far back as 2003 the Supreme Court upheld the conviction for international kidnapping of a foreign father trying to remove his child from Japan, it seems odd that it has taken the court so long to conclude that abductions going the other way might be “conspicuously unlawful.”

Habeas corpus could have been used to remedy child abductions to Japan long before the nation signed the Hague Convention. The real problem has always been the judiciary’s lack of willingness to take action. Perhaps this decision is a harbinger of long-overdue change.

Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. The views expressed are those of the author alone.

Source:  “Japan’s Supreme Court orders a child be sent home in a Hague parental abduction case.  Maybe”, Colin P A Jones, The Japan Times, 1 April 2018 

Japan’s Supreme Court hands down a road map for parental child abductions


Japan’s Supreme Court hands down a road map for parental child abductions
by Colin P.A. Jones

Issues | LAW OF THE LAND

Dec 31, 2017

 

 

In 2014, after years of diplomatic pressure and countless horror stories about parents losing all contact with children taken to or retained in Japan, the nation finally joined the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. This should have relegated to history Japan’s growing reputation as a “black hole” of abduction of children by one parent — usually the Japanese one —after the breakdown of a marriage or other relationship.
Less than four years later, in a sadly predictable ruling issued on Dec. 21, Japan’s Supreme Court confirmed abductions can continue. The difference seems to be that lower courts will pay lip service to the ideals of the convention by going through the motions, and various well-intentioned institutions now exist to help achieve the amicable resolutions that should ideally end such cases. But visitation with taken children will still be difficult or impossible, return orders will remain unenforceable and, at the end of it all, courts will be able to find it best for the children to stay in Japan.

 

The baroque procedural regime adopted by Japan to implement the convention was designed to give lower courts various ways to avoid returning children. Now that the top court has ratified such a result, we can probably expect to see more cases like this.
Children will be the principal victims of such abductions. However, I can’t help but feel sympathy for Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It bore the brunt of foreign criticism before Japan joined the treaty and, acting as Central Authority under it since , has devoted significant resources to resolving cases and helping the parents and children involved in such cases. This judgment will probably now make its job that much harder.

Escape hatches do their job

The case on which the court ruled has already been widely reported in the Western press. It involved the four children of an American father and Japanese mother.
According to the Supreme Court’s judgment they were brought to Japan by the mother in July 2014 with a promise they would be returned to their home in the United States the following month. They stayed. The following year the father applied to a Japanese court for a return order under the Hague Convention.
In 2016, the Osaka High Court issued an order that the children should be returned. The court found that the older children (11 at the time they were brought to Japan) were found to not want to return, but returning just the younger ones (who were both 6) would have been bad for all of them.
The basic concept underlying the convention is that children in these situations should be returned — promptly — by courts where they have been taken to their jurisdiction of habitual residence, and decisions about their long-term best interests should be made by courts there. The convention provides a few exceptions where returns can be refused, specifically: (i) if the child “objects to being returned and has attained an age and degree of maturity at which it is appropriate to take account of its views” and (ii) “there is a grave risk that his or her return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation.”
Having obtained a return order, the father then set about trying to enforce it. Here he encountered the unpleasant reality that Japanese family court orders involving children are generally unenforceable. No adults get arrested or even punished for noncooperation, meaning abducting parents (and the family members who often help them) can flaunt the law and the rulings of Japanese courts. This is relatively common knowledge within Japan, where even domestic divorces can see a child unilaterally taken by one parent and the other losing all contact for years. That a case like this would arise under the Hague Convention was always predictable; it was just a matter of when it would happen.
Whilst refusing to cooperate with the return order, the mother filed a motion to have the whole matter reconsidered based on changed circumstances. This was one of the escape hatches built into Japan’s implementing act — the ability of a losing party to seek a new trial (after an appeal!), even though the whole point of the process is to get kids back home as quickly as possible.
The Osaka High Court did rule expeditiously on this motion (impressive when one considers it can take years or even decades for a wrongly convicted criminal defendant to get a retrial based on new evidence) and — lo and behold — found it was no longer appropriate to return the child because the father lacked the wherewithal to support them. (That the father had been forced to pursue ruinously expensive cross-border litigation to remedy the abduction did not seem to matter.)
This was the other bolt-hole built into Japan’s implementing act: the ability of judges to consider the child-rearing capabilities of both parents in determining whether the exception in (ii) above might apply. In other words, the court did a custody evaluation about what would be in the best interests of the children, which is one of the basic things that is not supposed to happen in Hague Convention cases. The basic premise, again, is that custody determinations should be made by courts where the children have been habitually resident.
That this escape hatch would be used in a difficult case such as this was also predictable. Otherwise Japan’s courts would have suffered the ongoing bother and embarrassment of a demonstrably unenforceable return order hanging out in limbo in a high-profile case.

Top court decides on custody

It is this ruling that the five judges on the Supreme Court’s 1st Petty Bench upheld. Judgments of Japan’s Supreme Court are often terse, particularly when dealing with subjects like excessive detention, police misbehavior, constitutional violations and so forth. Part of the rationale may be that, except in rare cases, the top court only considers appeals as to matters of law and does not revisit lower court findings of fact, and the judgment just needs to contain conclusions about the applicable law.
When it comes to family cases, however, the court sometimes breaks from this staid mold and its judges presume to explain what is best for children they have never even met. In their December ruling the court declared in no uncertain terms that “the appellant (father) lacks the financial basis to appropriately care for the children, and cannot be expected to receive ongoing support in their care and support from his family.” It would thus be bad for the children to be returned to America.
That in the course of ruminating on the best interests of the children the judges did not find it worth mentioning that they had been denied all contact with their father during the entire process is simply indicative of how little importance the Supreme Court attaches to the parent-child relationship, at least when it is inconvenient to the result that best suits the court system.
At risk of sounding repetitive, who is best suited to care for the children is precisely the type of decision that the Hague Convention expects to be made in the home country. Moreover, Article 20 of the treaty clearly states that “a decision under this Convention concerning the return of the child shall not be taken to be a determination on the merits of any custody issue.” Perhaps the court just found this language inconvenient when for all intents and purposes it conclusively determined the merits of the custody issues in this particular case — where the children would grow up and who would raise them.
There you have it. Courts in other countries should now be on notice that, despite Japan joining the Convention and a diligent Central Authority providing assistance to parents of taken children, return orders issued by the nation’s courts remain unenforceable, contact can be safely denied, Japanese judges looking for ways to let children stay in Japan can simply find fault with the left-behind parent’s imagined parenting capabilities and higher courts will ratify that decision as being “in the best interests of the children.”
By demonstrating such a low threshold for refusing returns and condoning noncooperation with enforcement proceedings, the Supreme Court’s ruling seems likely to serve as a road map for further abductions to come.
Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. The views expressed are those of the author alone.

Source:  “Japan’s Supreme Court hands down a road map for parental child abductions”, The Japan Times, 31 December 2017

Japan signed abduction treaty but for ‘left-behind’ parents that doesn’t mean much

Japan signed abduction treaty but for ‘left-behind’ parents that doesn’t mean much

The Washington Post 

James Cook is a Minnesota man in a custody battle with the Japanese mother of his children. (James Cook,/Courtesy of James Cook)
James Cook wants his four children home in Minnesota. His estranged wife, Hitomi Arimitsu, says they want to stay with her in Japan. And so they have been going around in circles through the courts for almost three years.

If child custody battles are messy, expensive affairs when the parents live in the same country, they’re exponentially more so when the parents live in different countries and are fighting over where the children should live and which place should have jurisdiction.

Japan signed The Hague Abduction Convention, the treaty that governs international child abductions, in 2014 but is struggling to put its provisions into effect.

That is where the Cook family is caught.

“For three years of their lives, these kids have not had their dad. Kids need their dad, they need both their parents,” Cook said via Skype from his home in Minnesota. “I can’t describe to you the hell that this has been.”

Cook, who studied Japanese in college, and Arimitsu, a Japanese woman who attended a university in Minnesota, had lived in the United States for almost the whole time they had been together. But three years ago this week, with their marriage on the rocks, Cook agreed that Arimitsu could take their four children to Japan for the summer — with a notarized agreement that she would bring them back.

When that ended, they agreed that Arimitsu and the children would stay on a little longer, while Cook, who had lost his job, looked for work.

By the end of the year, Cook realized his family wasn’t coming back.

In the past two years, the pair has been going through acrimonious court battles in Osaka and in Minnesota, and each has won some and lost some rounds.

As is common in such cases, they have wildly different versions of events and focus on the rounds they’ve won.

Cook says an order in Minnesota last month, which found Arimitsu in contempt of court and upheld two orders from December that she return the four children to their father, should stand. In that case, the judge awarded Cook temporary sole legal and physical custody of the children.

But Arimitsu, through her lawyer Tomoko Kamikawa, said that because the Osaka High Court in February rejected Cook’s request to have the children returned, there is no valid return order under The Hague Convention. Cook has appealed this ruling to Japan’s Supreme Court.

The children do not want to return to the United States, Kamikawa said.

The crux of the problem, Cook and other “left-behind parents,” say, is that Japan — unlike other signatories — has no way of following through on its Hague commitments.

“Enforcement is one of the key problems,” said John Gomez, an American who heads the Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion group in Tokyo and is helping Cook. “Every country has to create implementation legislation to enforce their orders, but Japan basically cannot enforce their orders.”

The legislation that Japan passed to implement The Hague provision forbids the use of force, and stipulates that the children must be retrieved from the premises of the parent who has taken them. The “taking parent” must be present. The enforcement officers are basically bailiffs who are more used to repossessing washing machines than extracting children from emotionally charged situations.

This essentially means that enforcement involves an official at the gate calling for the children to come out, while the taking parent is inside with them.

“All of this was completely predictable,” said Colin Jones, a law professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto and an expert on child custody law in Japan. “Without dealing with enforcement methods, it was just a matter of time until a case like the Cook case happened.”

The U.S. government has expressed misgivings about Japan’s implementation of The Hague convention provisions. “The [State] Department is concerned about Japan’s ability to quickly and consistently enforce return orders,” it said in its 2017 annual report on international child abductions.

But the Japanese government says that it is making good progress.

“It’s been only three years since Japan entered into The Hague Convention,” said Hajime Ueda, director of The Hague Convention Division in the Foreign Ministry. “It takes time because every case is unique. From that point of view, we have been doing quite a good job.”

Eight children involved in five cases have been returned to the United States since Japan signed The Hague Convention, Ueda said.

The convention was a politically charged issue in Japan, with a substantial amount of opposition to signing it, so even becoming a signatory in 2014 was a major achievement. Experts note that it took other signatories some time to change domestic legislation to allow enforcement of The Hague Convention provisions; Germany, for instance, took about five years.

The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo is dealing with about 70 child abduction cases, 42 of them filed since Japan signed the convention, and 10 of those seeking the return of children to the United States.

The other cases just involve access — another thorny issue in Japan, where there is no concept of joint custody.

The prevailing wisdom in Japan says it is upsetting or disruptive for children to continue to see both parents after a marriage breaks down, so one parent — almost always the mother — gets full custody and the other parent usually has two hours’ access to the children each month.

“Visitation is the most problematic thing with Japan. A lot of cases about return orders are actually about access, about the noncustodial parent being able to maintain a relationship with their child,” said Jones of Doshisha University.

According to Gomez’s research, about 3 million children in Japan have lost access to one parent after divorce in the past 20 years – about 150,000 a year.

Children age out of the system at 16, so time is on the taking parent’s side, according to people involved in custody disputes.

And nothing will change for international custody cases until the domestic system that favors sole custody changes, experts say.

This is difficult because Japan has a family registry system, which operates as the foundation for all documentation. A person can be on only one family registry so after a divorce, children are usually removed from their father’s family registry and placed on their mother’s.

“The parent who becomes noncustodial loses all of their parental rights and effectively becomes a stranger to the child,” said Bruce Gherbetti, another “left-behind” parent who is advocating for change through the Kizuna group.

For now, that leaves Cook, who has found work with a medical device company, sitting in Minnesota, having no contact with his children.

“I’m sad we are in this mess and I’m concerned about my children,” he said. “This is the heartbreak of being a ‘left behind.’ ”

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Hitomi Arimitsu. The story has been updated.

 

Source:  “Japan signed abduction treaty but for ‘left behind parents’ that doesn’t mean much”, The Washington Post, 16 July 2017

 

When open minds fight closed courts in Japan

Open justice: Lawrence Repeta challenged court restrictions on note-taking and established a precedent studied by Japanese law students today.

| COLIN P.A. JONES
Issues | LAW OF THE LAND
When open minds fight closed courts in Japan
by Colin P.A. Jones
Special To The Japan Times

 

Jul 16, 2017

 

On Nov. 28, 2016, the Nagoya High Court overturned the acquittal of Hiroto Fujii, mayor of the Gifu city of Minokamo, sentencing him to 18 months imprisonment with labor, suspended for three years. Elected in 2013 at the age of 28, he remains Japan’s youngest mayor.
Fujii ran as an independent, defeating an candidate backed by the Liberal Democratic Party who was twice his age. He joined the LDP shortly after winning, but they expelled him the same day he was arrested for allegedly taking bribes from a businessman in connection with the installation of a school water system. It should be disheartening — but not surprising — that the party which rules the country apparently equates being arrested with being guilty.

 

The principal evidence against Fujii was testimony from the businessman who allegedly bribed him. Conveniently for prosecutors, he had already been arrested and convicted for the bribery and an unrelated fraud, a crime that literally involves lying to people. Finding the witness lacking in credibility and his account of sneaking cash to Fujii implausible, the Nagoya District Court acquitted the young mayor.
On appeal by prosecutors, the high court managed to decide that the convicted fraudster was more credible than either the mayor or the witness whose testimony supported his innocence. Not only that, the esteemed high court judges supposedly made this evaluation based solely on the record of the lower court proceedings. They did hear testimony from the fraudster, but this turned out to have been tainted (and thus unusable) because he had inexplicably received a copy of the district court’s decision. This meant he and prosecutors had months to iron out discrepancies before testifying again to the high court, which, supposedly unaffected by this testimony, nonetheless found him credible based just on the record of the lower court proceedings. The high court never bothered to hear testimony from the mayor and his witness before essentially deciding both were lying.
The citizens of Minokamo apparently have a different view; Fujii was re-elected mayor in May. He ran unopposed, so popular despite his conviction that apparently no other parties thought it worth standing opposition candidates. Now on appeal before the Supreme Court, his case offers a cautionary tale for young people who challenge Japan’s wrinkly-faced establishment. It is also a sad reminder of how low one should set expectations of the nation’s criminal justice system. This is not just because of the result at the high court, but because the process started with a judge rubber-stamping a democratically elected sitting mayor’s arrest and prolonged detention, the latter on the farcical grounds that he was a flight risk. In just a few days an astounding 40 percent of Minokamo voters signed a petition calling for him to be released on bail.
Just as with all trials, Fujii’s was about competing narratives — his and the prosecutors’. Judges are supposed to balance the evidence and decide which is true. Yet apart from the testimony and other evidence submitted in the courtroom, at a higher level there is also a separate narrative playing out about whether trials themselves are being conducted fairly. Authoritarian institutions and marketing executives both appreciate that controlling narratives such as these is critical.
Judicial efforts to control the narrative played out in a shocking fashion in Fujii’s case. By law, the judgment of a court in a criminal case must be read to the defendant in open court, though it may take several days from being requested for a formal written judgment to be delivered to the defendant and his lawyers. In high-profile cases, however, courts have a practice of issuing a summary of the judgment to the media so they can report on it immediately.
In Fujii’s case, accredited media were given a 60-page “summary” of the high court’s decision the day it was rendered. At the same time, the same court refused to give Fujii’s counsel the same summary — that was for the media only. The defendant and his lawyers were supposed to wait until the official judgment was ready. This left them (and the government of Minokamo) to field questions from journalists who were better equipped with information about the judgment than they were. Control of information is a source of power — both to criticize and prevent criticism. Japanese courts — like all government institutions — know this very well.
Which brings me to why we should all be sorry to see Lawrence Repeta leaving Japan.

 

Larry is a friend of mine and was, until recently, a law professor at Meiji University. Had you been sitting in the public seats at the Nagoya High Court when it reversed Fujii’s acquittal, you could have pulled out a memo pad and — like Fujii’s lawyers — frantically tried to take notes as the judgment was read out. If you had done so, you would owe a debt of gratitude to Larry Repeta.
When I first observed a Japanese criminal trial, courthouses had signs on the walls saying “Taking notes prohibited.” This didn’t apply to everyone, though: Journalists accredited to the court’s “press club” could do so, but other observers could not. Press clubs are an omnipresent narrative control device in Japan; journos who write anything too critical of the institution can have their accreditation revoked, losing access to precious information. Members of the general public are not subject to this sort of control.
Larry first came to Japan in the early 1980s as a young lawyer and researcher. He encountered the ban on note-taking when trying to observe the trial of a bubble-era stock promoter for tax fraud. Repeated requests to the presiding judge for permission were rejected without explanation. Aided by the Japan Civil Liberties Union, he brought suit on the grounds that the prohibition on note-taking violated the Japanese Constitution’s guarantee of open courts, freedom of expression and equal protection. To a young American-trained lawyer, it seemed so obvious.
As so often seems to be the case in Japanese constitutional litigation, Larry won by losing, with all but one of the Supreme Court’s 15 judges acknowledging that “note-taking by spectators in the courtroom is worth respecting and should not be hindered without due reasons,” although such behavior was nonetheless subject to “restrict(ions) or prohibit(ions) if it interferes even slightly with the administration of the fair and smooth trial proceedings in the courtroom.”
Declining to find any clear constitutional violation (and, in my view, fudging on equal protection by simply declaring it reasonable to give journalists special privileges), the court rejected his appeal while at the same time declaring that permitting note-taking should be the rule rather than the exception. This was driven home when the Supreme Court’s General Secretariat issued a directive to courts throughout the country to permit note-taking by spectators. That the court’s administrators are able to issue edicts to judges about how to conduct trials is one of the lesser-known but vaguely disturbing aspects of Japan’s judicial system.
Nonetheless, Larry’s case wrought change, though not through law but through narrative, by establishing a high-profile negative story about closed courts — Larry embarrassed the judiciary into submission. In this respect it probably helped that he was a conspicuous Westerner, though it would be nice if more Japanese people had been — still are — embarrassed that it took a foreigner to care enough to fight for this right.
Despite the technical result, Larry’s case was regarded as a great victory. It is one of the basic precedents studied by Japanese law students. Thanks to his efforts, research on trial practice and citizen monitoring of judicial behavior is easier, and an entire new genre of nonfiction exists — books based on watching trials, and more recently court-watching bloggers. Larry is rightfully a folk hero among progressives, civil libertarians and others who care about informational justice, a field he has devoted himself to since becoming an academic. He has also published countless articles on Japanese law (including a book chapter for which I was co-author).

 

Retired from his teaching position in Japan, Larry returns to Seattle, where he graduated from law school and once practiced as a lawyer. Before his departure we caught up over beer in Kyoto. Asked to reflect on what had changed in the 35 years since he first started asking questions about Japan’s criminal justice system, his response was: “The saiban’in (lay judge) system has been introduced and there have been some other changes, but the fundamental rules have not changed, and they are the rules of an authoritarian system where the presumption of innocence is denied.”
The defendant in the trial where he had tried to take notes was ultimately acquitted of the principal charge yet ended up being detained for over two years during the course of a trial that lasted four. Prolonged deprivations of freedom regardless of guilt or innocence remain a foundation of the criminal justice system.
We discussed the case of Okinawan anti-base activist Hiroji Yamashiro, recently released on bail after five months’ pre-trial detention for relatively minor charges. I asked about right-wing criticism about Yamashiro’s activities being too unruly and aggressive. Larry’s response was: “Without civil disobedience in America, where would African-Americans be today?” This may seem very American, but all too often in Japan the expectation — unspoken requirement — that people be polite and obedient can be the opening for all sorts of rights-infringement scenarios, whether involving government use of land or questioning by police.
In any case, at Yamashiro’s trial people will be able to watch, take notes and debate their own evaluations of the evidence against him. For that, thank you again, Larry Repeta.
Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. The views expressed are those of the author alone. Send your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

Source:  “When open minds fight closed courts in Japan”, Colin Jones in The Japan Times, 16 July 2017