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Harsher treatment or second chances? Japan at crossroads in juvenile law debate

  • September 6, 2020
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press



When Ruriko Take’s husband succumbed to cancer two years ago, she was pained to see how he — even on his deathbed — continued to blame himself for the death of his teenage son more than two decades on.


In November 1996, the Takes lost their 16-year-old son Takakazu to a vicious murder by a gang of teenage thugs who repeatedly hit and kicked him, unprovoked, on an Osaka street. After beating him up, the ringleader of the group, a 16-year-old karate practitioner, tossed a cigarette butt at a helpless Takakazu and bragged about his martial arts skills, joking to the rest of the gang that he may even make it to a K-1 match.


Takakazu’s friends, who had all been petrified as the scene unfolded, immediately called Take for help once the ordeal was over. When Take arrived at the scene, she rushed him to a hospital, where her barely conscious son mumbled to her that he needed to “go” because he had a “promise to keep” — she would later learn he was talking about a plan to go on a date with his first girlfriend.


Those were his final words. Takakazu died 12 days later.


“My husband kept saying until the very end that he can’t forgive himself for not being able to save him. Watching him anguish like this, I realized that’s what will happen to me when I die — it’s never-ending regret,” Take said in a recent interview.


For years, Take, 65, has headed a group comprised of families who lost their loved ones to juvenile crimes and represented one of the most strident voices in Japan calling for a more retributive shift in the juvenile law, which they claim lets offenders under 20 get away too easily with lighter punishments.


As Japan moves toward lowering the age of adulthood from 20 to 18, the nation is at a crossroads in deciding whether to more harshly penalize offenders as young as 18 by declaring them “adults” too old for the juvenile law’s protection.


But to Take’s disappointment, a ruling coalition task force debating the law’s revision has now proposed that the nation’s 18- and 19-year-olds remain eligible for its correctional programs after all, despite the legal voting age having already been lowered to 18.


“Eighteen-year-olds in Japan began casting ballots as ‘adults’ a long time ago,” Take said. “I don’t understand why they will continue to be treated as immature children when it comes to crimes.”


Compromise deal

Following the proposal by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito pair, a Justice Ministry panel similarly tasked with re-examining the juvenile law is now finalizing its conclusions.


It was in March 2017 that the panel originally started its deliberation on whether the age at which youth fall out of the juvenile law should be lowered to 18 from the current 20. The idea was to debate whether the definition of “juveniles” in the law should be updated in accordance with the 2015 lowering of the minimum voting age from 20 to 18.


A move to reassess the age of majority culminated in 2018 with the Diet passing amendments to the Civil Code that formally dropped Japan’s threshold of adulthood down to 18 — the first such change in 140 years. The change will officially take place in April 2022, although the legal age for drinking, smoking and legal forms of gambling will remain at 20.


Further adding to momentum for redefining juvenile offenders as under-18s was the 2015 slaying of 13-year-old boy Ryota Uemura by a group of three local teens in Kawasaki. Uemura was forced to swim on a freezing February night before being slashed in the neck with a box-cutter, reigniting calls for a tougher juvenile law.


But as deliberations kicked off, the panel proved sharply split over whether to exclude 18- and 19-year-olds from correctional programs guaranteed by the juvenile law, with opponents adamant that youth this age are still highly “malleable” and full of potential for change.

Depriving them of opportunities to rehabilitate that they have under the current law and simply subjecting them to heavier punishment, they said, would only risk increasing their recidivism.


Impatient with the lack of progress in the panel’s discussions, the ruling coalition task force took the liberty of presenting a proposal of its own in July that avoided outright disqualifying the 18- and 19-year-olds from the law but still sought to mete out harsher penalties for them.

On one hand, the proposal said all cases involving this demographic will continue to be sent to family courts first, which have long served as the linchpin of the nation’s efforts to rehabilitate misled youth.


But on the other, the ruling bloc argued the scope of offenses by 18- and 19-year-olds that can be sent back to prosecutors for criminal trials — which would involve juveniles undergoing the same judicial proceedings as adults, minus correctional measures such as spending time in the reformatory — should be expanded.


It also advocated for the lifting of a ban on the disclosure by media outlets of juvenile offenders’ real names or their photos. Under the proposal, the disclosure of such information would be permitted once an offender is formally indicted.


The name Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old who allegedly shot and killed two protesters and injured another in a Wisconsin rally against the police brutality of Jacob Blake, is now everywhere on the news in the U.S. — which would be nearly inconceivable in Japan under the current juvenile law.


The current law bans media from publishing information that could make offenders identifiable, with the idea that doing so would hurt their chances of rejoining society. As such, even juveniles who masterminded the most shocking crimes — such as the 2000 hijacking in Saga Prefecture of a bus by a knife-wielding boy, 17, who stabbed one passenger to death and injured two — remain anonymous.


The Justice Ministry panel is expected to largely hew to the ruling coalition’s proposal in finalizing its conclusions as early as this month, with the ministry reportedly aiming to submit amendments to the Diet next year.


Risk of recidivism

But criticism persists over these apparent steps toward retributive justice.


Under the ruling bloc’s proposal, the scope of 18- and 19-year-olds subject to criminal prosecution will be expanded to include those who commit crimes punishable by an imprisonment of at least one year, such as robbery and rape. Currently, they can only be sent back to prosecutors to be tried as adults if crimes they intentionally committed led to a person’s death.


With robbery accounting for a much higher percentage of juvenile crimes than murder, the proposed change, if realized, would represent a “significant” increase in the number of young offenders who can be indicted for criminal trials, said Hiraku Kanaya, a Tokyo lawyer well-versed in juvenile cases.


“But many of these robbery cases involve kids who only acted as accomplices to the main perpetrators,” he said.


“If these subordinate participants have to be sent back to prosecutors as well, I would find the treatment too harsh for them,” he said.

Kanaya said he is likewise concerned about the adverse effect that media disclosure of young offenders’ identities could have on their reintegration into society.


“Once their names are publicized, the fact they underwent criminal trials will forever be recorded, which will become a hindrance to their efforts at employment, marriage and housing rental later in their lives,” he said. “When that happens, they may get hopeless about their lives and feel like nothing matters anymore, relapsing as a result.”


Unrepentant youth?

Japan may be an outlier in defining juvenile offenders as under-20s.


In places like England, Wales, France, Germany and the U.S. state of California, those age 18 or older are no longer treated as juveniles in judicial proceedings, although exceptions can be made, according to Japan’s Justice Ministry. In Germany, for example, those defined as “young adults” from the age of 18 to 20 can be handled by juvenile courts depending on the circumstances.


Since its enactment in 1948, Japan’s juvenile law has been amended four times.


The first major revision took place in 2000 after public outcry over the grisly 1997 murder of two children in Kobe by a 14-year-old serial killer — who went by the notorious moniker of Seito Sakakibara — prompted a rethink of minimum age for criminal liability from the previous 16 to 14.


Since then, the law has repeatedly been tweaked in favor of stricter punishment, backed by public outrage over the image of the “impunity” enjoyed by young criminals.


Whether young offenders have it easy is open to debate.


Take, the mother of Takakazu, for her part believes the current correctional system is so lenient that few come out of it truly contrite.

Many bereaved families in her group, she said, complain that juveniles “seldom make good on their vows in court to keep apologizing to us and paying us compensation for the rest of their lives.”


“They can somehow afford to pay for their cell phone bills or auto loans, but very few of them actually keep their promises in paying us compensation. They just run away from their responsibility,” she said.


Lawyer Kanaya, meanwhile, said not all juvenile offenders are as unrepentant as Take describes, seeking to disabuse the public of the notion that all juveniles are let off easier than adults.


Statistics show a majority of adult offenders end up with their cases dropped, including those for which indictments are suspended, essentially getting away scot-free.


Of all the criminal offenses processed by prosecutors in 2018, 63 percent either led to suspended indictments or saw indictments abandoned altogether, as opposed to the 37 percent of cases that led to indictments, leading to the levy of fines and, to a much lesser extent, criminal trials, according to the latest crime paper by the Justice Ministry.


“But juvenile cases by nature require some kind of involvement by family court judges every step of the way. … It often happens that juvenile cases are treated more seriously, and with more meticulous attention, than adult cases,” he said.


Miracles happen

Yuya Mochizuki, a 24-year-old former teen delinquent, knows firsthand how tough the treatment of young offenders can be, brushing off the belief that correctional facilities for adolescents and older youth are somehow “softer” than the prisons of their older peers.


“I’ve never been to (general) prison myself, but I can tell you that every aspect of juvie is governed by all these tiniest little rules that make your head spin,” said Mochizuki, who as a teen was sent to the reformatory three times.


“You’re not even allowed to speak with your (fellow) inmates, and you’ll get scolded big time by your teachers if you are caught, say, just sitting with your legs apart or not keeping your body straightened up all the way down to your fingertips when standing,” he said.


When he was barely a year old, Mochizuki’s parents got divorced, causing him to be bounced from relative to relative. His childhood is fraught with memories of abuse that included a distant family member pouring kerosene on him and threatening to set him ablaze.


As a teenager, he spun out of control, joining the ranks of a local bosozoku (biker gang) in Yamanashi Prefecture and committing numerous crimes such as breaking and entering, theft, driving without a license and assault.


Mochizuki, who recently founded a housing renovation company, says he is skeptical that a more draconian juvenile law would do anything to prevent young delinquents from going off the rails, given how many of them act on impulse, rather than slyly exploit the supposed impunity they are assured.


“When I was a teen, I didn’t even know what the juvenile law was. A lot of kids are like this — they don’t really think ahead to the consequences of their actions,” he said. “When they’re at it, they are desperate or just having fun.”


After being released from the third reformatory, Mochizuki temporarily worked with a nonprofit group dedicated to the rehabilitation of youngsters gone astray. There he met countless delinquents like himself and grew convinced of the susceptibility of young minds, therefore taking a stance against the exclusion of 18- and 19-year-olds from the juvenile law.


“Lots of guys would come to our organization all aggressive and full of swagger at first, but I’ve seen many of them change completely and become someone else over the tiniest successful experience, like getting a girlfriend or achieving something at work,” he said.


“It’s really important to give them a chance to rehabilitate.”

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