The Japanese judge, law and politics

✍️ Nathan BÉRIDOT

The Japanese judge, law and politics

In 1978, Japanese and French judges were called upon to rule on similar issues relating to the rights of foreigners.

Ronald McLean was an American citizen who taught English in Japan. Wishing to remain in Japan, he applied for an extension of his residence permit shortly before its expiry. This extension was refused by the Immigration Bureau, which cited the fact that Mr McLean had changed his job since his entry into the country without notifying the Immigration Bureau. In order to challenge this refusal to renew, he brought an action, which he based on Article 22 of the 1946 Constitution, which provides for the right to determine residence. According to him, this provision gave him the right to remain in Japan and to fix his residence there if he wished. The Supreme Court, ruling on 4 October 1978, rejected his argument. It stated that the fundamental rights of foreigners are protected only within the limits of their status, and that no text guarantees them the right to remain in Japan. In other words, the decision to accept or not to accept foreigners in Japan is a matter of discretionary power of the executive branch.

In a decision rendered the same year, the French judge seems to have ruled in the opposite direction.

The decree of 29 April 1976 is at the origin of “family reunification”, i.e. the possibility for foreign workers residing in France to grant a residence permit, under certain conditions, to members of their family in order to remain on French territory. Fearing that this measure would lead to an increase in the unemployment rate, the government of Raymond Barre decided, by a decree of 10 November 1977, to suspend family reunification for three years. The Groupe d’information et de soutien des travailleurs immigrés (Information and Support Group for Immigrant Workers, GISTI) and two trade unions brought an action before the administrative judge to challenge this decree of 10 November. The Conseil d’Etat (French Supreme Court in the administrative order) ruled on 8 December 1978, about two months after the McLean ruling, and found in favour of the GISTI by annulling the 1977 decree. In its decision, it argued that foreigners enjoy, like nationals, the right to lead a normal family life, which includes the right to have their spouse and minor children come to live with them.

La Cour suprême du Japon, à Tôkyô (Chiyoda-ku) Creative Commons

The Supreme Court of Japan, Tôkyô (Chiyoda-ku) @ Wikimedia Creative Commons

Active judge, passive judge

What should we think of these decisions? The first reflex of the outside observer would probably be to let his sense of justice speak for itself, to affirm that the Japanese judge did not protect the rights of foreigners, unlike the French judge.

Such an interpretation would not be unprecedented, as this is precisely the view of many authors in the abundant Anglo-Saxon literature. For these authors, the attitude of the Japanese judge is marked by a desire never to challenge political power and always to decide in a way that is likely to win full consensus within the institutions. In so doing, they rarely challenge the decisions of the political authorities, nor do they protect fundamental rights for fear of hindering the action of those in power. This is why these same authors do not hesitate to describe the Japanese judge as ‘passive’, ‘conservative’ and ‘docile’, suffering from a cruel comparison with the Korean Constitutional Court, which is described as “the most active judicial institution in the region”.

This is an important statement. Indeed, the 1946 Constitution, which replaced the Meiji Constitution of 11 February 1889, had intended to break with the all-powerful imperial figure that sat at the apex of the separation of powers. It gave very broad powers to the judge, so that he could, if necessary, oppose the political power, accused of having dragged the Pacific into the war. Indeed, to claim that the Japanese judge is passive is to assert that the Supreme Court of Japan would not comply with the role entrusted to it by the 1946 Constitution.

What is the meaning of this statement?

Marcello Bacciarelli - Allégorie de la Justice (Themis) Creative Commons

Marcello Bacciarelli - Allegory of Justice (Themis) @ Wikimedia Creative Commons

Good judge, bad judge

On second thought, describing a judge as “passive” obviously involves an element of subjectivity. Indeed, the act of judging cannot be summed up as a simple choice by which the judge would decide to protect or not to protect an additional right. Judging has much more to do with arbitration, which consists in choosing one interest over another.

Thus, it is possible to see in the McLean decision a desire not to protect the fundamental rights of foreigners. However, it can also be seen as protecting the autonomy of political power, which is necessary for the proper functioning of the state. Similarly, in the GISTI case, the Conseil d’Etat chose to protect the rights of foreigners, but did so at the cost of reducing the autonomy of political power. In other words, in this matter, the judge cannot be described as passive or active, since the judicial decision is a choice: one interest is passively protected because another interest is actively reinforced.

To describe the Japanese judge as ‘passive’ is therefore not an operational understanding grid. What is more, if we see passiveness in the Japanese judge’s decision, it is we think this decision is bad, unfair. Such a statement therefore constitutes a political assessment, and not an objective description of the action of judiciary. However, any political assessment raises the question of the subjectivity of its author. By thinking his decision is wrong, we assume that some interests are more worthy of protection than others. In a certain way, this means refusing to accept that the Japanese judge may defend a different set of values from our own.

Is there not another way to describe these court decisions?

Minobe Tatsukichi (1873-1948) Creative Commons

Minobe Tatsukichi (1873-1948) @ Wikimedia Creative Commons

Law and politics

The key to understanding the attitude of the Japanese judiciary probably lies in the history of the institutions.

At the end of the war, Japanese lawyers trained to understand the Meiji Constitution had very little time to understand the new Constitution, which was largely derived from Anglo-Saxon legal doctrine. In doing so, the most influential of them, such as Minobe Tatsukichi (1873-1948), actually analyzed the new constitution in terms of the old texts and concepts. Thus, they argued that the 1946 constitution had actually transferred the supreme power of government from the emperor to the citizens, who occupy the most prominent place in the new constitution. Even today, Japanese jurists maintain that the principle of democratic sovereignty is the backbone of the institutions.

In many respects, the Japanese judge sees himself as the guarantor of this democratic sovereignty, rather than as an actor of societal progress. True legitimacy is democratic and belongs to the citizens, not to the judge whose legitimacy is based on the technicity of his knowledge. In so doing, it is rare that it allows itself to pronounce on social issue that it considers to be the sovereign choice of the citizens, such as the place of foreigners within society.

This is how two recent Supreme Court decisions might be understood.

On 23 June 2021, the Supreme Court refused to declare the single name system unconstitutional, obliging one of the spouses (usually the wife) to adopt the spouse’s surname. In justifying its position, the Court stated that there is currently no ‘consensus’ in society on this issue and that the choice to change this rule belongs to the citizens, not the judge.

On the other hand, in a decision of May 25, 2022, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional an act that prevented Japanese citizens living abroad from voting in the popular review of judges, a procedure that allows citizens to object to the appointment of a Supreme Court judge. The decision was justified by the importance of the right to vote as the basis of democratic sovereignty.

Taking an interest in law and institutions can be instructive. It is therefore regrettable that Japanese law is currently the subject of only a few studies, and that we are still left with Yoshiyuki Noda’s statement that the Japanese ‘do not like law’. In order to counter this commonplace, it would be necessary for French researchers to ‘like’ (Japanese) law a little more…


  • BERIDOT Nathan, « Le contrôle de constitutionnalité des lois par la Cour suprême japonaise », Revue internationale de droit comparé, n°4, 2020, pp. 975-998
  • HALEY John O., Authority Without Power: Law and the Japanese Paradox, Oxford University Press, 1994
  • MATSUI Shigenori, « Why is the Japanese Supreme Court so Conservative? », Washington University Law Review, Vol. 88, n°6, pp. 1375-1423, 2011
  • ODA Hiroshi, Japanese Law, 3ème éd., Oxford, 2011.
  • RAMSEYER J. Mark, Eric B. RASMUSEN, « Why Are Japanese Judges so Conservative in Politically Charged Cases? », The American Political Science Review, Vol. 95, n°2, p. 331-344
  • YAMAMOTO Hajime, « Les garanties constitutionnelles de l’autorité judiciaire et ses problèmes au Japon », Revue de droit public, 2007, p. 175

About the author

Nathan BÉRIDOT wrote a PhD thesis at INALCO (National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations) in 2020 about the exercise of judicial power by the Supreme Court of Japan, and a PhD thesis in private law at Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne in 2022. He is a researcher at IFRAE (French Institute for Research on East Asia), at IRJS (Institute of Legal Research of the Sorbonne), and a member of the research group Populations japonaises (CRCAO-IFRAE). He is a lecturer at INALCO and at Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne.

La Cour suprême du Japon, à Tôkyô (Chiyoda-ku) @ Wikimedia Creative Commons
December 2022
Chercheur à l'IFRAE