Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the government’s proposal to lower the age for criminal trials from 20 to 18, presumably as a sop to the public and the media, which think that brutality among youth is on the increase and should be addressed in a serious manner. In the column I referred to a radio discussion with TV announcer and right wing pundit Jiro Shinbo, who wants tougher sentences for juvenile offenders and thinks the media should be allowed to cover such crimes openly. He somehow believes that Japan is the only country in the world where reporters are banned from identifying minor suspects, which isn’t true but nevertheless brings up the question of why some countries, like the United States, which supposedly forced this rule on Japan during the postwar occupation, allows the media to identify youth offenders and Japan still doesn’t. The reasons seem to have less to do with legal limitations than with popular demand. According to Amnesty International, the U.S. is the only country where minors can be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. For the record, America doesn’t sentence children to death, but that’s only because the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for minors in 2005. In that decision, one justice wrote that juveniles are “categorically less culpable” than adults when it comes to committing crimes, but somehow life imprisonment is still a possibility for them. Consequently, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to prevent the media from reporting openly on youth crime and attendant trials since rehabilitation is obviously not the main purpose, punishment is.
What’s different about the Japanese situation isn’t the sensibility at play—like Americans, Japanese people think the punishment should fit the crime regardless of age. The difference is in the legal framework. The American system doesn’t distinguish between minors and adults when it comes to serious crimes, whereas the Japanese system does. That’s why the government wants to lower the age of majority. Instead of changing the Juvenile Act, which limits reporting, it simply wants to increase the number of people who can be tried as adults. This gambit will probably only satisfy the tabloid media for a little while. Whenever there is a serious crime committed by a person younger than 18, they will feel shut out of the process. They obviously look with envy at the American system, where crime is reported pretty much openly and suspects can be named and, potentially, vilified even before their guilt is established. Call me a “liberal” (Shinbo would), but I think the Japanese system is better. Youth offenders should be given a second chance, even those who have committed murder. However, I also believe that American society, despite a frank outlook that often drifts into rabid Manichaeism when it comes to crime, is better prepared to debate the usefulness of prosecuting minors and perhaps fairer in its treatment of them. In other words, while juveniles aren’t protected from adult-level punishment and exposure, America’s penchant for contentiousness makes it possible for them to receive more equitable judgment overall, at least in the public realm. It isn’t the same in Japan, mainly because the media itself isn’t as mature or self-conscious enough about its responsibility. Here the Juvenile Act is necessary. Otherwise, youthful offenders would just get buried.