Accusation, defence and morality in Japanese trials: a hybrid orientation to criminal justice

Author: Ikuko Nakane (University of Melbourne)
Speaker: Ikuko Nakane
Topic: General sociolinguistics
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 General Session


The Japanese criminal justice system has gone through transformations in its modern history, adopting the models of European Continental Law systems in the 19th century as part of Japan’s modernisation process, and then the Anglo-American Common Law orientation after WWII. More recently, citizen judges have been introduced to the criminal justice process, a further move towards an adversarial orientation with increased focus on orality and courtroom discourse strategies. Yet, the actual legal process does not necessarily represent the adversarial orientation found in Common Law jurisdictions. While previous research from cultural and socio-historical perspectives have offered valuable insights into the Japanese criminal court procedures, there is hardly any research examining how adversarial (or non-adversarial) orientation is realised through language in Japanese trials.

Drawing on an ethnographic study of communication in Japanese trials, this paper discusses a ‘hybrid’ orientation to the legal process realised through courtroom discourse. Based on courtroom observation notes, interaction data, lawyer interviews and other relevant materials collected in Japan, trial participants’ discourse strategies contributing to both adversarial and inquisitorial orientations are identified. In particular, the paper highlights how accusation, defence and morality are performed and interwoven in the trial as a genre. The overall genre structure scaffolds competing narratives, with prosecution and defence counsel utilising a range of discourse strategies for highlighting culpability and mitigating factors. However, the communicative practice at the micro genre level shows an orientation to finding the ‘truth’, rehabilitation of offenders and maintaining social order.

The analysis of courtroom communication, contextualised in the socio-historical development of the Japanese justice system and in the ideologies about courtroom communicative practice, suggests a gap between the practice and official/public discourses of the justice process in Japan. At the same time, the findings raise some questions regarding the powerful role that language plays in different ways in varying approaches to delivery of justice.