Rachel in Tokyo

This is a blog about an American law school student studying in Tokyo for the semester.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Supreme Court of Japan

We went to the Supreme Court! It's amazing to come to another country and have the opportunity to do things you can only dream of doing at home! We met with Justice Hamada, who is retiring in May. In Japan, Justices are subject to mandatory retirement at 70 years of age. Thus, most justices do not get the opportunity to leave a 20 or 30 year legacy. Another comparative difference in Japan is that Justices are subject to a popular vote every decade!

Our session with Justice Hamada was a real treat. Although he is the second most powerful Justice on the bench, he is incredibly down to earth. The students who asked questions during our session focused on specific issues relating to the Supreme Court as well as comparisons between the US and Japan. However, when I had the opportunity to ask him a question, I asked him what he plans to do when he retires? To this, he lit up and revealed some very personal details about his life, his career and more. Things that we could never look up online. Afterward, more than one person commented on how they enjoyed his personal response to that question!

Japan's Supreme Court is composed of 15 justices who normally sit in one of three Petty Benches each composed of 5 justices. Occasionally, for cases of Constitutional importance or where a Supreme Court precedent may be overruled, the entire court sits in the Grand Bench. Justice Hamada was appointed to the bench in 2001 after decades of civil practice in international trade and holds a degree from Harvard Law. Although we met in the his courtroom, the atmosphere was relatively relaxed. A note about the courtroom: it (and the Grand Bench courtroom) was decorated in a relatively welcoming manner - warm colors, comfortable seating and lighting, tapestries on the walls...no obvious symbols of state. So when Justice Hamada sat down on front of us and started telling us about the Japanese judiciary, it felt a lot more like a small discussion group/lecture than a presentation by a Supreme Court Justice. His English was excellent and he was very down-to-earth with a great sense of humor. After he spoke, he answered a number of questions from our group.

Afterwards, we were led to the Grand Bench courtroom. As befitting a courtroom seating 15 justices when in full session, it was big! During the brief presentation we were given, I found out that the room is the size of two tennis courts and seats over 200 spectators including the general public and members of the press. There is also a huge skylight above the center of the courtroom. After being told some of the information about the court and its operations, we were allowed to take pictures because we were special guests of Justice Hamada.


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