In past years, 25-year-old law school graduate Hiroyuki Ichikawa would have been facing an almost impossible task — a bar exam with a 97 percent failure rate.
Now, his chances are closer to 50-50.
In the most sweeping reform of Japan’s legal system since World War II, the doors are opening wide for a flood of new lawyers, prosecutors and judges to handle criminal and civil cases in an increasingly litigious society.
Experts say the reforms are long overdue and underscore a big shift in social attitudes that is forcing Japan to change its longstanding policy of keeping the number of lawyers low and the public out of the courts.
“People are beginning to take more and more of their troubles to court,” said Hideaki Kubori, a corporate lawyer and a professor at Omiya Law School outside Tokyo. “There are just not enough lawyers.”
Japan has roughly 22,000 lawyers — one for every 5,790 people, compared with one for every 268 in the U.S. Under the old bar exam, to be scrapped in 2011, fewer than 1,500 people are allowed to pass every year. In the United States, with about twice Japan’s population, the number is closer to 75,000.
To fill the vacuum, the government has decided to more than double the number of legal professionals, including lawyers, prosecutors and judges, to 50,000 by 2018. Juries for serious criminal cases will be introduced in 2009 to ease the load on judges. The first U.S.-style law school opened in 2004 and, with government encouragement, Japan now has 72 of them, including the one that Ichikawa attended.
Previously, university law departments tended to focus on the academic or theoretical side of the law. The new schools concentrate on practical training and preparing students to specialize. Their graduates are exempt from the old exam, and instead take one written specifically for them.
Economic necessity is the driving force.
Kubori noted that, for example, filings for personal bankruptcy have jumped more than fivefold over 10 years, to 219,402 in 2004. Inheritance and divorce disputes are also increasingly finding their way to court.
More important, business leaders have been campaigning for a bigger pool of lawyers specializing in tax law and intellectual property as legal discussions surrounding those issues become ever more complicated.
Less certain is whether the reforms will fix Japan’s often-criticized penal justice system.
Cases often drag on for years and conviction rates are higher than 99 percent due to a system weighted heavily in favor of prosecutors, who have superior resources and status. The shortage of lawyers — especially to defend criminals — has long been a target of criticism. Defense lawyers are widely perceived as protectors of the public’s enemies and are often poorly paid.
The introduction of juries, giving ordinary Japanese citizens their first chance to participate in criminal court procedures, may change that balance when it takes effect.
But defense lawyers warn the reform will not necessarily answer allegations of human rights violations and false charges that result from forced confessions with no lawyer present. They also stress that pretrial access to their clients will remain tightly restricted.
“Unlike other countries, check mechanisms by lawyers are basically nonexistent in Japan because they cannot witness interrogations,” said Masashi Akita, a criminal defense lawyer. “Verbal abuses and other acts that amount to human rights violations occur all the time.”
Freshly graduated Ichikawa knows the odds will remain stacked against the defenders, and therefore wants to specialize in corporate law for now.
“I think it is impossible to make a living by becoming a criminal lawyer,” he said. “There are so few incentives to become one.”
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