Shonenho, the Japanese Juvenile Law, is based on ideas of protection, love, and tolerance towards the juvenile offender. Its main purpose is to protect him from the stigma of the crime or delinquent act that he has committed, as well as from the environment in which he was when he committed the crime or delinquent act. Punishment does not have a role within the Japanese juvenile system. Rather, Shonenho strives to reform the juvenile so that he can return to society as a fully functional member within a relatively short period of time. Looking at the low juvenile criminal and recidivism rates in Japan compared to other industrial nations, as well as the fact that the incidence of juvenile crime has decreased compared to when Shonenho was enacted in 1949, it is clear that Shonenho has proven effective.
Nevertheless, especially since the Kobe case in 1997 involving a juvenile who committed two murders and assaulted others, Japan has been contemplating revising Shonenho so that harsher penalties can be imposed on juvenile offenders. Such proposals have resulted from sharp criticism towards the current system that some people claim overprotects juvenile offenders. The two main proposals, introduced to the Japanese government by the leading political party, include allowing prosecutors to try juveniles and having a three-judge panel hear juvenile cases. The Japanese Diet will consider these proposals in the near future.
The proposals directly contravene the purpose of Shonenho. Hence, they do not have the best interest of the juvenile offender in mind. Despite the respectable track record of Shonenho, in the wake of the Kobe case lawmakers have been influenced much by the public outrage over several uniquely heinous juvenile crimes.
The focus of a reform that would truly improve the already effective system should be on enforcing Shonenho. One way to do this is to add enforcement provisions to Shonenho. As it stands now, Shonenho does not provide any legal recourse for the violation of provisions designed to protect the juvenile offender. In addition, lawmakers should place more of an emphasis on ensuring that Shonenho complies with international standards of juvenile justice by guaranteeing juveniles certain rights when they proceed through the juvenile justice system.
Masami I. Tyson,
Revising Shonenho: A Call to a Reform That Makes the Already Effective Japanese Juvenile System Even More Effective,
33 Vanderbilt Law Review
Available at: https://scholarship.law.vanderbilt.edu/vjtl/vol33/iss3/6