What we learnt from the coverage of the Nicola Furlong trial

Coverage of the Nicola Furlong murder trial in Tokyo has placed a spotlight on the Japanese court system. This article sets out to give the reader an insight into the legal system under which the trial took place and look at life inside a Japanese prison.

The origins of the Japanese justice system date back to the fourth century. At that time, justice was based on a simple test called the kukatachi, which roughly translates as "the boiling water test". Here, both the accuser and the accused were required to put a hand into a pot of boiling water and search around for a given object lying at the bottom. Judgment was given in favour of the party whose hand did not get scalded.

Thankfully that system of justice has long since been abandoned and replaced by a mixture of western legal systems which we ourselves are familiar with. The layout of a Japanese courtroom is similar our own, and the same rules of evidence and due process must be respected. It could be said that a trial taking place in Tokyo looks similar to a trail taking place in Tralee, the only noticeable difference being that in Tokyo there are no juries. Instead, members of the public are appointed as 'lay judges'. Although dressed as judges, they act as jurors but with one fundamental difference, lay judges may directly question those giving testimony.

Although Japanese and Irish courts may be similar, their prisons are not. The most striking aspect of a Japanese prison is its silence. In fact, anyone who speaks at any time other than the permitted speaking time will be punished. While prisoners in Ireland are free to choose their hairstyle and clothing, every prisoner in Japan must have a shaved head and wear a standard grey prison uniform.

Unlike Ireland, because Japanese prison sentences usually come with an amount of mandatory labour attached, Japanese prisoners have no choice but to work in the prison workshop. While at work, it is prohibited and punishable to speak or make eye contact with other prisoners or prison guards.

Perhaps the most unusual characteristic of the Japanese prison system is the time set aside every day for inner reflection. Here, the rules require every prisoner to sit in a specific Zen-like position, close their eyes and quietly reflect on their crime. Any refusal to cooperate with this practice will lead to punishment.

Life in a Japanese prison is particularly tough if you do not speak Japanese. Only immediate family members are ever permitted to visit a prisoner, and such visits must be supervised by a prison guard. If the guard cannot understand your language, you must arrange and pay for a translator to be present. If this cannot be done, you and your family member and your prison guard must simply sit in silence without communicating.

Similarly, if a foreigner wishes to read a newspaper or magazine in a language other than Japanese, they must first pay for it to be translated into Japanese. Only upon reading the transcript will the prison authorities decide whether or not the prisoner may actually receive the publication. In real terms, this means the foreign prisoner in Tokyo would have to spend several thousand euros just to read this newspaper.

Thomas Nelan B.C.L., B.B.S., is an Attorney-at-Law with Mannix & Company, Solicitors, No. 12 Castle Street, Tralee and No.3 Church Street, Castleisland. www.mannixj.com T: 066 7125011 E: tnelan@mannixj.com


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