Buiddhist groups fret over Japan's lay judge system

The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan 12, 2008

Involvement in judging others, death penalty decisions pose problems

Tokyo, Japan -- Some religious organizations have expressed uncertainty about how to deal with the nation's lay judge system scheduled to begin in May.

Under the system, ordinary citizens, along with professional judges, will have to pass judgment on defendants in criminal trials.

Observers point out that religious leaders who seek to help people are unsure about whether they should play a role in bringing criminals to justice.

They also note the lay judge system has stirred debate over the stance religions should take over participation in social processes such as the lay judge system, under which lay judges might have to become involved in death sentence decisions.

The lay judge law stipulates that lay judge candidates cannot refuse to serve only because they do not want to bring people to justice. However, during the legislative process, it was noted that some people are unable to help bring others to justice due to religious beliefs. As a result, the law allows lay judge candidates to decline to serve only if the judge decides the candidate would suffer serious psychological harm by participating in a trial.

In Britain and Germany, which have a long history of citizen participation in criminal trials, members of the clergy are legally prohibited from acting as lay judges or on juries.

The Honganji sect of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, which has about 7 million adherents, held an assembly at Nishi Honganji temple in Kyoto in October. Many monks belonging to the organization serve as prison chaplains at prisons or detention houses.

"How's our sect going to handle the lay judge system?" one participant asked at the assembly. "Shouldn't we clarify our sect's stance to the public?"

Jodo Shinshu's precepts state human beings are so weak that anyone is susceptible to committing crimes. Many of its monks and followers wonder if they, as weak humans, are in a position to bring someone else to justice, sect officials said.

In response to the question, a senior official of the Honganji sect said, "We'll continue discussing the issue."

The Shinshu Otani sect, another school of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, also discussed the lay judge system at its assembly in June. A senior official of the organization said the sect did not plan to issue an official opinion on the lay judge system.

"[Nonetheless] we believe it's important to Shinshu members [to choose] not to decide [to impose the] death sentence if he or she is chosen as a lay judge," the senior official said.

A monk of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism said, "While I think we [as human beings] shouldn't bring others to justice, we believe we should clarify our opinion as religious professionals."

Kokugakuin University Prof. Nobutaka Inoue said religious organizations' roles in society would be tested by the system.

"All religious organizations will need to explain how they will deal with the lay judge system," Inoue said. "It might be difficult to [solve the contradictions between] their doctrines and the death penalty, but it will give them the opportunity to review their position on social issues."