The Role of Law in Japanese Society
As in other industrialized countries, law plays a
in Japanese political, social, and economic life.
differences between Japanese and Western legal concepts,
have often led Westerners to believe that Japanese society
more on quasi-feudalistic principles of paternalism (the
oyabun-kobun relationship) and social
, ch. 2). Japan has a relatively
of lawyers, about 13,000 practicing in the mid-1980s,
667,000 in the United States, a country with only twice
population. This fact has been offered as evidence that
Japanese are strongly averse to upsetting human
taking grievances to court. In cases of liability, such as
crash of a Japan Airlines jetliner in August 1985, which
520 lives, Japanese victims or their survivors were more
than their Western counterparts would be to accept the
condolences of company presidents (including officials'
resignations over the incident) and nonjudicially
compensation, which in many cases was less than they might
received through the courts.
Factors other than a cultural preference for social
however, explain the court-shy behavior of the Japanese.
Ministry of Justice closely screens university law faculty
graduates and others who wish to practice law or serve as
Only about 2 percent of the approximately 25,000 persons
applied annually to the Ministry's Legal Training and
Institute two-year required course were admitted in the
The institute graduates only a few hundred new lawyers
Plagued by shortages of attorneys, judges, clerks, and
personnel, the court system is severely overburdened.
judges often strongly advise plaintiffs to seek
settlements. The progress of cases through even the lower
agonizingly slow, and appeals carried to the Supreme Court
decades. Faced with such obstacles, most individuals
choose not to
seek legal remedies. If legal personnel are dramatically
which seems unlikely, use of the courts might approach
in the United States and other Western countries.
In the English-speaking countries, law has been viewed
traditionally as a framework of enforceable rights and
designed to protect the legitimate interests of private
The judiciary is viewed as occupying a neutral stance in
between individual citizens and the state. Legal recourse
regarded as a fundamental civil right. The reformers of
era (1868-1912), however, were strongly influenced by
theories that had evolved in Germany and other continental
states. The Meiji reformers viewed the law primarily as an
instrument through which the state controls a restive
and directs energies to achieving the goals of fukoku
(wealth and arms).
The primary embodiment of the spirit of the law in
has not been the attorney representing private interests
bureaucrat who exercises control through what sociologist
has called "legal-rational" methods of administration.
in law, acquired through university training, consists of
implementing, interpreting, and, at the highest levels,
law within a bureaucratic framework. Many functions
lawyers in the United States and other Western countries
responsibility of civil servants in Japan. The majority of
country's ruling elite, both political and economic, has
recruited from among the graduates of the Law Faculty of
University of Tokyo and other prestigious institutions,
have rarely served as private attorneys.
Legal and bureaucratic controls on many aspects of
society were extremely tight. The Ministry of Education,
and Culture, for example, closely supervised both public
private universities. Changes in undergraduate or graduate
curricula, the appointment of senior faculty, and similar
required ministry approval in conformity with very
regulations. Although this "control-oriented" use of law
inhibit the freedom of teaching or research (protected by
23 of the constitution), it severely limited the
scope for reform and innovation. Controls were even
primary and secondary schools
, ch. 3).
Data as of January 1994