Is Japan truly a land without lawyers?


In 1983, Time magazine looked at Japan and saw, to its astonishment, a “land without lawyers.”

“Most Japanese,” said its report, “live — and die — without ever having seen a lawyer.” Was this a country, or a mystic brotherhood? In the U.S. there was one lawyer for every 400 citizens; in Japan, one for every 10,000.

Whether Japan has matured since then or lost ground can be argued either way. The number of lawyers, in any case, has tripled. It’s what the government wanted, and began working for in 2002. Law schools were established. The bar exam was simplified. Japan is a “land without lawyers” no longer.

It’s hard not to smile, reading Time’s coverage of 3½ decades ago. The reporters themselves must have been smiling. How pristine, how innocent, how freshly scrubbed and shining it all would have looked to them, hardened as they were by the gritty American free-for-all of winners vs. losers in a never-ending, often violent, always litigious struggle for life and its good things. In Tokyo, a typical police officer manning a koban (police box) is shown dealing with a typical complaint: “‘Where’s my pet monkey, Mimi?’ squeaked an elderly woman wrapped in a bright pink kimono.”

It’s not like that anymore. The first rude shock to the social harmony came in the 1990s via the pseudo-religious terrorism of Aum Shinrikyo. Since then it’s been one thing after another — the unprovoked mass stabbing of children and adults at a school bus stop and a string of bizarre fatalities involving aging drivers who don’t seem to know their brakes from their accelerators being merely the latest instances. “Lawyerlessness” is a luxury Japan can no longer afford.

The grotesque and the aberrational hardly exhaust the subject of lawyers’ penetration of mainstream society.

Everyday life and its venues — home, school, the workplace — are themselves rife with legal problems, assuring lawyers a role here, too.

Maybe in 1983 contending parties would simply have talked and drank their way to amicable settlements of discords such as power harassment, sexual harassment, bullying, marital infidelity, groping and all the other great and small frictions that arise when too many people live too close together under too much pressure. How natural it’s become lately to turn to lawyers may be gauged by President magazine’s feature this month on that very subject: legal advice on handling problems that once upon a time were social, not legal.

The first question that arises in any crisis is, “Do I need a lawyer?” It is natural to hope not. Legal procedures are complicated and lawyers are expensive — some more so than others, of course, just as some are better than others, or more expert in your particular issue. How to choose? What considerations is a wise choice based on? There are outlets offering elementary legal advice but, at ¥5,000 per half hour, they’re not cheap.

There’s legal insurance, too, President informs us — costing roughly ¥3,000 a month, with coverage of up to ¥3 million. The very existence of such a thing suggests how pervasive the fear is that some day I too — as straitlaced and inoffensive a citizen as anyone walking the streets minding his or her own business — may need a lawyer.

This, for example, could happen to you — you think it couldn’t, but the man it happened to also thought it couldn’t, and yet it did. He’s walking home drunk late one night when, in a sudden fit of irritation at a passerby accidentally blowing smoke in his face, he deals the fellow a punch in the jaw. Bystanders call the police.

“I came to my senses and found myself under arrest,” the aggressor tells President.

Well, he thought, this is going to cost me — foreseeing a heavy fine, not detention. Detention it was, however — for two days at least, he was told; up to three weeks, at investigators’ discretion. Mastering his despair, he reached for his smartphone to call his wife. “Freeze!” the officer barked. Phone calls are forbidden. His wife would worry, his office would dock him for unauthorized absence. His head spun. In one inebriated, unreflecting instant he’d made an utter hash of his life.

He was lucky. The police station he was taken to had some arrangement with a legal aid outfit. A lawyer got him out of custody and mediated an out-of-court settlement with the victim.

Relief was joyous but short-lived. Legal fees and the settlement came to ¥1 million, his office cut his salary for three months and his wife, he says, now utterly despises him. Not even a lawyer can solve that.

“I’ll spend every day working to regain what I lost,” he vows.

Here’s a story of someone who managed without a lawyer. He was lucky, too.

Japanese proverbs

Drink figures in this episode as well. It concerns a 40-year-old freelance writer whose son, a fourth-grader, was being bullied. The boy was a good student and a good athlete — not an obvious target; but he did labor under one disadvantage. His classmates all lived in the same apartment building and had known each other since day care. He was a newcomer and lived in a house apart.

It was stupid stuff, nothing violent — he’d be invited to play in the park, he’d show up and nobody would be there. He’d come home crying. It happened repeatedly.

Legal avenues are one recourse against bullying, when it gets serious. You need evidence, says lawyer Shogo Yamagami — screenshots of social media postings, smartphone recordings of persecution in action and so on. Compensation, if awarded, is typically ¥1-2 million. You might also pursue the school for failing to protect your child.

No question of that here. It’s a fine line between teasing and bullying. In matters below the legal radar, you’re on your own. The writer’s work hadn’t been going well. He was drinking too much. His son’s classmates came over one afternoon: “Let’s play in the park.” The writer staggered forward, truculent. He glared at the boys.

“I know what you’re up to,” he snarled. “I’ll tell your parents.”

Alcohol-fueled parental intervention can backfire, President warns. So can anything. In this case it worked. The kids fled, and left the boy alone thereafter.

Whether they ever played with him is not mentioned.