Friday, August 25, 2006


When I first came to Japan, I had just come from perhaps the most litigious nation on earth, where people are sued for icy sidewalks and for causing injury to burglars of their houses; where litigants win many millions for spilling hot coffee in their own laps, and where when I became a driver I was advised by those in the know that, in the event of an accident I should never apologize, for that would be interpreted in court as an admission of fault and I would be all the more liable.

So you can imagine my surprise when, on my way into Tokyo from the airport back in 1972 I was informed that the two men I'd just seen standing by the roadside, bowing to each other in deep formality, had just had an auto accident and were trying to out-apologize each other. I can still see them now, it was that much of a surprise.

From a fellow-boarder in the big old house we lived in then - a young man who was a ronin law student studying completely on his own and taking the bar exam every year - I learned that there were only a few thousand lawyers in Japan, lawsuits being exceedingly rare and in bad taste in a land where businessmen even shunned contracts, since one's word was one's bond; so only about 5% of those taking the bar exam ever passed. Fighting a very uphill battle, my friend failed the test every year, for finally too many years; he eventually gave up and became a night security guard.

That was one of my first inklings of how different Japan was. But things have been changing ever since and that includes the legal system, with more and more of the public now taking their cases to the courts, so universities are opening up Law Departments to crank out lawyers to handle the load. Under Japan's legal system reform they're going to introduce juries too(!) which should be interesting, though doubts will remain about Japan's penal justice system and alleged human rights violations...

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