Date: Tue, 17 Mar 98 21:43:46 CST
From: (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: JAPAN: Juvenile Crime Laws Under Scrutiny
Article: 30138
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
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/** ips.english: 502.0 **/
** Topic: JAPAN: Juvenile Crime Laws Under Scrutiny **
** Written 3:07 PM Mar 14, 1998 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **
Copyright 1998 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.

Juvenile Crime Laws Under Scrutiny

By Suvendrini Kakuchi, IPS, 11 March 1998

TOKYO, Mar 11 (IPS)—A rise in the number of shocking crimes committed by children in Japan has sparked a national debate on whether to tighten existing laws that critics say treat juvenile offenses far too lightly.

On one side of the debate are those seeking a change in the current laws on juvenile offenders, pitted against those who say the rights of children should never be compromised.

According to the Association for Victims of Juvenile Crimes and its supporters, minors who commit heinous crimes should go through the same court proceedings as adult offenders.

Many lawyers and counselors, however, say such a move not only compromises the fundamental right of children to be protected, but may also work against the rehabilitation of the minor offenders.

At present, the cases of delinquents between the ages of 14 and 19 are handled in family courts, which do not have prosecutors and are closed even to the relatives of the victims.

Even when found guilty, minors are spared punishment under the Juvenile Offenders Law, which was enacted in 1949. According to the law, juvenile delinquencies are mistakes stemming from immaturity. Thus, it says, government should do all it can to rehabilitate the youthful offenders.

Up until recently, few questioned the wisdom of the law. But it has come under attack of late as a result of a surge in serious crimes committed by minors in the last two years.

A white paper on crime released by the justice ministry shows there were 196,448 juveniles arrested in 1996, a 1.6 percent increase from the previous year. But what concerns many is the figure of 1,496 people taken in for serious crimes like murder, robbery and rape in that year.

In recent years, a number of high-profile cases of youth crimes have shocked the Japanese.

In 1996, six junior high school boys allegedly rolled up a mat around a classmate and allowed him to suffocate to death. Last year, a 14-year-old boy in Kobe strangled an 11-year-old schoolboy to death and then beheaded him. The teenager later confessed to two other previous killings.

In both cases, the guilty offenders ended up in juvenile reformatory institutions. No final sentence has been given on the Kobe youth offender.

The likes of Kazumitsu Take, whose 16-year-old son died after being attacked by another boy of the same age, are dissatisfied with the set-up that sends serious youth offenders to be reformed instead of put in jail. Take heads the organisation that is lobbying hard for changes in the Juvenile Offenders Law.

The families of victims face heavy emotional torture, he says. But there is no way of getting rid of our grief and anger because nothing is disclosed to us. (In contrast), those who committed the crimes are fully protected by the law.

Take and other critics of the Juvenile Offenders Law say it is outdated and no longer applies to modern society, where it is no longer entirely unusual to have a minor facing charges of murder or rape. Children who commit such violent acts, they argue, should be tried in ordinary criminal courts instead of being coddled in the family courts.

Some media organisations also seem keen to see some reforms in the law. In January, the respected weekly magazine ‘Bunger Shunju’ defied authorities by publishing detailed depositions of the Kobe case. Under the law, details of family court cases are not supposed to be released to the public in an effort to protect the future of the minors involved.

According to journalist Shinobu Yoshioka, the details were published so that the public may have a glimpse of the Kobe boy's frame of mind and background. This is important for understanding society better, he says.

But the Japan Bar Association is opposed to changes in the Juvenile Offenders Law. Lawyer Junko Ichibu, who has handled several juvenile cases, says tougher penalties for minor offenders may mean prison and isolation from society for many years. This, she says, may only result in recidivist behaviour.

Human rights lawyer Kazuyuki Azuzawa says Japan's support for the death penalty should deter anyone from suggesting that children be tried as adults. He adds that Japan must respect the rights of children to protection and rehabilitation. The only time children can be treated as adults, he says, is when they are given voting rights.

Reformatory schoolteacher Keiko Okuchi, meanwhile, suggests that the problem may lie not in the law but in the way parents bring up their children today. She says Japanese society does not nurture responsibility in children because they are not treated as individuals.

Parents and teachers tell children that they know what is best for them and that is to study hard and have stable jobs, says Okuchi. But this is not what children want, and the stress that piles up on them is tremendous.

Recently, she says, a survey was done among students in junior high schools in Kanagawa, a Tokyo suburb. When asked whether it was right or wrong to assault their parents, almost 18 percent of those polled said they did not know, indicating tension in the family, if not resentment against the parents.

Okuchi says many of her students have told her that they understand the emotions of the children who resort to stabbing their elders or teachers, and say this is because adults do not really listen to them.