|Saturday 24 February, 2001
Japanese Juvenile Justice
A number of brutal murders by young people has led to a total review of Japan's 50-year-old youth justice system. But is the introduction of new, more severe laws the answer? And is crime amongst the young really as serious as some Japanese fear? Hugh Levinson reports for Assignment.
Over the past few years, the people of Japan have been shocked by a series of horrific crimes committed by teenagers. It started in 1997 in the city of Kobe, when a 14-year-old killed a younger boy and cut his head off. He left the head outside a school, along with a taunting note. He was eventually arrested, but not before killing another boy. Another teenager murdered an entire family of neighbours and a 17-year-old killed a woman with a knife, during a bus hijack.
Ruriko Take lost her 16-year-old son four years ago, when a group of teenagers beat and kicked him to death. She was horrified when a family court sent one of the killers to a Juvenile Training School for less than a year. She explains:
'If a young person takes someone's life, they usually don't face a criminal trial. They are not punished. But who takes responsibility for ending that life? … The Juvenile Law here only deals with the problems of offenders – how to protect them and rehabilitate them. The sufferings of the victims are not taken into account at all.'
These crimes are apparently motiveless and quite different to the normal pattern of juvenile delinquency. Mariko Kuno Fujiwara studies Japanese society at the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living he comments:
'The crimes committed by the younger generation are quite brutal and quite cruel and are often committed by the type of kids we never thought would behave that way. That's puzzling and confusing and especially adults agonise over the fact that –“my God, this could happen to anybody.”'
Extensive and supercharged reporting has fuelled those fears. The Kobe murder and the more recent bus-jacking dominated the airwaves, with blanket coverage on most TV channels. However, statistics suggest that the cases highlighted by the media are exceptional.
Although the rates of general and violent crime by teenagers have risen in the last three years, they are still lower than they were in the 1980s and much lower than in the 1950s and 60s. One reason is that the declining birth rate means there are simply fewer teenagers around. And by comparison with other rich nations, Japan still has very low levels of crime. However that hasn't stopped people being frightened.
Juvenile Law Reforms
It was these fears that led politicians to revise the Juvenile Law, for the first time since it was passed during the Allied Occupation in 1949. The law emphasised rehabilitation over punishment, with Family Courts treating teenage offenders as wayward rather than evil.
The new amendments now give crime victims more information about Family Court hearings – a generally welcomed change. More controversially, they've reduced the age at which teenagers can face criminal prosecution, from 16 to 14. And teenage murderers will now be sent to criminal courts. Unusually, conservative politicians, without the involvement of bureaucrats or expert advisers, pushed through the law.
Whilst the revisions to the law have been popular with the public, they have been attacked by many academics, defence lawyers and even judges who believe that young criminals have the potential to become decent people. As family court judge Toshihiko Morino comments:
|'The law is about rehabilitating young people rather than punishing them' |
Tama Juvenile Training School, the oldest reform school in Japan, runs a strict regime for their 200 inmates, involving lots of exercise, marching between classes and group assemblies. For the first week, all inmates are kept in solitary confinement, but after that they live in communal dormitories.
There's a strong emphasis on education, with both academic classes and vocational training. Re-offending figures are low and some 40% of the inmates find work before they leave.
When the offenders leave the training schools, they go on probation, but it's a very unusual type. Whilst Japan has fewer than 1000 professional probation officers, it has nearly 50 000 volunteer probation officers. They do virtually all the casework, usually looking after about four clients.
Professor Hiroko Goto is an academic expert in youth offending and has experience as a volunteer probation officer. He explains:
'Since we bring the offenders into our own homes, it helps widen their experience of society. Also, in the past, volunteers would often be well-connected people locally and could help offenders get jobs, although that doesn't happen so much anymore.'
Causes Of Violence
Most experts believe stiffer penalties are unlikely to have any effect on the children who commit the kind of random, violent crimes, which have so worried the nation. These atrocities are by their very nature unpremeditated and these offenders most certainly do not think of the consequences.
There has been much soul-searching about what makes these kids suddenly snap. The rapid collapse of the extended family, violent video games, TV programmes and cartoons have been suggested as possible causes.
It's hard to know whether these could be contributory factors, but what is clear is that many Japanese children are put under extreme stress by the educational system, and the relentless pressure to achieve. That's why Japanese schools have started to become less regimented, with a recent prime ministerial advisory panel suggesting further widescale reform.
|Older Japanese talk about the emergence of the shinjinrui – the “new human species” or even shin-shinjinrui – the “new-new species”. |
It is possible that understanding teenagers has also become more difficult for the older generation. Japanese youth are physically bigger than their parents generation – and louder, more assertive and, with their dyed hair and high fashions, they are literally more colourful.
Japan has the world's fastest-ageing population. Kids are becoming relatively – a rarity. That may be creating an almost neurotic national obsession with teenagers. One day they are arbiters of style. The next, harbingers of the country's downfall.
These doubts are amplified by a general unease about the future. The country has lost the sense of purpose and unity that sustained it during the post-war years as it set about becoming an economic superpower. The nation is becoming more diverse, more confusing.
| Japan Teen Attacks
One dead after bus hijack:
A 17 year old hijacked a bus and fatally stabbed a passenger in south-west Saga city.
Baseball bat matricide:
A 17-year-old boy was arrested for beating his mother to death with a baseball bat shortly after attacking four classmates in an argument reportedly over the length of his hair.
Schoolboy stabs three:
Three members of a family were stabbed to death by a 15-year-old schoolboy.
Teen bomb attack:
A 17-year-old boy detonated a home-made bomb in a Tokyo video rental shop hoping to "destroy a man."