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Government, Judiciary

Judicial candidates, public consensus, jury system, popular vote, Supreme Court justices

Japanís court system is organized in four tiers. At the top is the Supreme Court. Its 15 justices have jurisdiction to hear appeals on issues of law (those involving legal interpretation, as opposed to the determination of facts). Below the Supreme Court are eight high courts with jurisdiction to hear appeals on issues of both law and fact. District courts serve as the principal courts of first instance, where ordinary civil and criminal cases are first brought to trial. In the bottom tier are summary courts; their jurisdiction is restricted to civil cases involving claims of 900,000 yen or less and minor criminal cases. For every district court there is also a separate family court with jurisdiction over domestic relations cases, including contested divorces, succession, and other family matters, as well as juvenile offenses. Domestic relations cases in the family court must be submitted to a panel of court-appointed lay conciliators who try to reconcile the parties.

The postwar constitution provides explicitly for the power of judicial review. As in the United States, courts at all levels may rule on the constitutionality of any statute or other formal government measure. As in Germany, Japanís appellate courts also have the power of revision, or the power to enter new judgments on appeal. Japan does not have a jury system. Most first instance district court cases are tried by a three-judge panel. Japan has relatively few judges, and judicial caseloads tend to be extraordinarily heavy.

The Japanese judiciary is notable for its autonomy and public trust. Judicial candidates receive extensive training at a government institute, then serve a ten-year term as assistant judge before being promoted to full judgeship. As a matter of law, the cabinet appoints all judges except the chief justice, who is appointed by the emperor at the direction of the cabinet. In practice, however, the cabinet accepts the recommendations of the Supreme Court in the appointment and promotion of lower court judges, and the advice of nominating agencies and senior judges in appointing justices to the Supreme Court. Lower court judges serve ten-year terms, which are almost always renewed. All judges may be removed by impeachment, and Supreme Court justices may also be removed by popular vote when their names appear on the ballot in the first election after their appointment and every ten years thereafter.

The Supreme Court, in addition to nominating lower court judges and hearing appeals, also sets judicial procedures and manages the judicial system. By convention, 5 of the 15 Supreme Court justices are career judges, 5 are former practicing lawyers or prosecutors, and 5 are former government officials or scholars. Japanís most senior career judges tend to share markedly conservative attitudes toward the role of the courts and the foundations of public trust. Their influence in the administration of the judiciary has thus ensured a cautious judiciary that generally follows rather than leads judicial and public consensus.

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