Takesaki Hironobu

Evolving Justice

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Japan Takesaki Hironobu ’71 LL.M. has high hopes that the country’s new lay judge system will help citizens better understand the work of jurists and help legal professionals see their world in new ways

By Carl Freire

Winter 2010

This August, Japan watched, transfixed, as for the first time in more than 60 years, a trial in which lay judges participated with professional judges proceeded under the glare of intense media scrutiny. The lay judge experiment (a modified form of the jury system in which jurors deliberate with professional judges to determine the verdict and sentence length) marks a sea change for a system sometimes criticized
as opaque and undemocratic, and perhaps no one has followed the shift with
greater interest than one of its shapers, Japan’s Supreme Court Chief Justice
akesaki Hironobu ’71 LL.M.

Takesaki, who became the country’s top jurist last November, freely admits he was skeptical when legislators first vetted the idea a decade ago. His main concern was that its proposers themselves had not fully sorted out what they hoped it would accomplish. But the criminal law expert came to realize the legislators’ ambiguity reflected real uncertainty among the Japanese public about the process by which justice is administered.

“There is a need to close the gap between professionals and the general public,” says Takesaki, sitting back to sip coffee as he considers his words. “If the public feels it doesn’t really understand how judges reach their decisions, then it may lose faith in the courts. With this [new system], we can show them: ‘Here’s what we do. Here are the principles by which we operate.’”

Better understanding goes both ways, adds Takesaki, who is seen as a key figure to watch as the system evolves. Just as the public will learn about the judiciary, judges, too, may come to better understand ordinary citizens.

“Scholars argue that one problem with our courts is the tendency to issue extremely detailed decisions understandable only to professionals,” he says. “By working side by side with lay judges, jurists will get a better sense of what the public wants to know and understand, and learn how to better direct their questioning and write their rulings accordingly.”

Given that one of Takesaki’s boyhood dreams was to become an astronomer, it is no surprise that seeing the world in a new light has been a running theme throughout his life. His experiences at Columbia Law School are a case in point.

“I was most struck by the great differences between Japanese and American society,” he says of his time in New York City. “[The Law School] really made me look closely at each society and examine what role the law played in each. To this day, I still cannot help but see the Japanese legal system in relative terms.”

Takesaki is now at the apex of a judicial career that began in 1969. The western Japan native divides his time between his official residence in Tokyo and the city’s suburbs, where he spends every weekend with his wife and daughter. Despite a demanding schedule, he still makes time to cultivate English roses in his garden on weekends and, above all, to read. Takesaki counts works in the natural sciences, and especially history, among his favorites, and values them as much for the pleasure he gets from the subject matter as for the depth they give him as a jurist.

“The law has its logical and scientific side, but we [judges] also face the problem
of understanding human beings, which is why history interests me,” he says.
“Trying to understand any crime or incident without knowing the background is inconceivable to me. Every social phenomenon has to be seen in its historical context. History is fundamental.”

Carl Freire is a Tokyo-based writer and translator.

Photographed by Benjamin Parks