Courtroom Discourse of the ‘Hybrid’ Japanese Criminal Justice System

Ikuko Nakane


In the Japanese courtroom, an adversarial orientation is often manifested in the ways in which prosecution and defence counsels each utilize discourse strategies to construct competing narratives, for example, by asking coercive negative questions in cross-examination. Alternatively, counsel’s attempt at building a convincing narrative is at times thwarted by the judge’s inquisitorial orientation to attempt to elicit ‘the truth.’

This paper aims to explore the discourse of Japanese criminal trials, drawing on an ethnographic study of communication in courtroom settings in Japan. The paper specifically focuses on how the hybridity of adversarial and inquisitorial orientations to the justice process are realized in courtroom discourse. Drawing on courtroom observation notes, lawyer interviews and other relevant materials as data, I analyze Japan’s ‘hybrid’ legal system through observing its trial genre structure, narrative construction processes and courtroom discourse strategies.

Analysis suggests that blame, moral preaching and attribution of collective responsibility are sometimes incorporated into the process of questioning the defendant and witnesses in a court of law. Within this paper, the analysis of trial discourses reveals that while operating in the framework of adversarial principles, Japanese criminal trials also allow for a discursive practice particular to these courtroom settings which seeks to maintain moral and social order in Japan as a society that is structured on a hierarchical institutional power structure. The paper concludes that specifically designed language powerfully conveys the delivery and attainment of justice, where further research anthropological linguistic work can advance our understandings of the legal process, in Japan and beyond.