Introduction to Japan's Legal System
In 1868, following the feudal regime, the modernization of Japan (Meiji Restoration) started. The Meiji reformers were strongly influenced by legal theories that had evolved in Prussia. France also had an influence on certain areas of law. The first modern constitution and basic codes were enacted following Prussian and French models. The Japanese legal system is based on the civil law system. After World War II, the Constitution was replaced, and many other laws were newly enacted or amended. These new laws were heavily influenced by United States through the Allied Occupation. The principle of judicial review was introduced to Japan from the United States. Overall, the Japanese legal system is closer to the European system. But U.S. influence and Japan’s traditional values have modified the system.
The National Diet is the sole law-making organ of the State. However, it does not mean the Diet members draft bills. Many draft bills come from government agencies, then are submitted to the Diet through the Cabinet. When a member wants to submit a bill to the Diet, he cannot do so by himself. Certain number of co-sponsors is required to submit a bill. For example, in the case of a bill affecting the budget, fifty or more co-sponsors of the House of Representatives are required.
The whole judicial power is vested in the Supreme Court and lower courts (High Courts, District Courts, Family Courts and Summary Courts). Independence of judiciary is guaranteed by the Constitution. Most judges are virtually life-time employees of a national governmental bureaucracy: the judiciary.
Official Sources of Law
Hierarchy and Source of Law
- Treaties and International Agreements
- Codes and Laws/well-established customs
- Cabinet Orders
- Ministry Ordinances
- Ministry Notifications
Judicial decisions being regarded as important, are compiled and codified. The judgments of the Supreme Court are considered to be binding on lower courts. The decisions of the high courts are very influential in the lower courts.
Official Source of Law: Kanpō [official gazette]
Laws must be promulgated after they are passed by the Diet. The emperor promulgates it by publishing them via Kanpō. There is no official version of codified laws.
Code books: Roppō [six codes]
Code books are private publications. Many code books are published annually.
There are official reports and private reports. Except for Supreme Court cases, only a small percentage of judgments are reported. An unreported judgment can be obtained by requesting a copy in person at the record office of each court.
Law Reviews and Legal Periodicals
Law reviews are not read as widely by students and practitioners in Japan as are in some other systems. A school mainly publishes its professors’ articles and not many articles are written by outsiders. In contrast, some private legal periodicals, especially Juristo and Horitsu Jihō, have been widely read and well received in the Japanese legal community. They are comprehensive legal magazines, each issue featuring main topics with several articles and reports on new legislation and notable cases. There are also many periodicals which specialize in one area of law.
There is a wide variety of law books that are published in Japan. There would be at least one book even in very minor areas of law.
The last 5 days of Kanpō (the official gazette) is available for general public at the National Printing Bureau’s Web site (external link). All Kanpō information since May 3, 1947 (the day the post-WWII Constitution became effective) can be searched for people who pay monthly fees at the National Printing Bureau’s website (external link). The monthly fee is approximately $20.
Current Laws, Cabinet Orders, Ministry Ordinances, and Ministry Notices
Current Laws, Cabinet Orders, and Ministry Ordinances are available at the Hōrei dēta teikyō sisutemu (external link), the Web site that the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication maintains. They are not official version of laws.
In addition to Current Laws, Cabinet Orders, and Ministry Ordinances, Ministry Notices are available at Hōko (external link), but payment of an annual fee is required. An individual use’s annual fee is approximately $60, and a corporate user’s is approximately $120.
Some Ministries (Ministry of Finance; Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology; Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare; Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport; Ministry of Environment; and Ministry of Defense) post their notices at their Web site. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications maintains comprehensive government information Web site, “E-gov (external link),” which list links to these pages.
Legislation, Bills, and House or Committee Minutes
Laws passed by the Diet since 1947, except for most recent ones, are available at the House of Representative’s Web site, Seitei hōritsu (external link). Bills since the 142nd Diet Session (1998) can be found at the House of Representative’s Web site, Gian (external link) . Minutes of each House and committee are available at the National Diet Library’s Web site, Kokkai kaigiroku kensaku system (external link).
Most of Ministries and other government agencies post new bills within their jurisdictions and their brief explanations at their Web sites. Web sites of Ministries and other agencies can be found at the Prime Minister of Japan and his Cabinet Web site, Kankōchō linku shū (external link).
Cases on official reports are available at courts in Japan’s Web site, Saibanrei jōhō (external link).
Note: Parties’ names are not queried in searching cases. The case naming method is different in Japan. There is no actual case name system. Famous cases usually have so-called names. Parties’ names are not used if individuals are parties. Names of Corporations’ may be used for the title of the case name. The name of the court and date of the judgment are generally used to search a case.
Comprehensive Legal Information
Westlaw Japan (external link) provides a comprehensive database, which includes laws and regulations, cases, legal commentaries, and articles. It costs approximately $140 per month (not specified in the Web site but assumed it is per month), per ID. LexisNexis JP (external link) also provides a comprehensive database. Its user fee is not listed.
Government Documents and Information
The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications maintains comprehensive government information Web site, “E-gov (external link).”
Legal Resources in English
Translation of Laws
The Japanese government started a project to translate major Japanese laws and regulations in 2004. Translated laws and regulations are available at Hōrei honyaku dēta (external link). They are not official translations.
A private company, Eibun Hōrei Sha publishes translations of Japanese laws by the EHS Law Bulletin Series (external link). They are available on a commercial basis.
English translations of some of the Supreme Courts’ judgments are available at Courts in Japan’s Web site, Judgments of the Supreme Court (external link).
Explanation of Laws and Policies
Ministries and government agencies have English Web pages that explain some policies and new legislation. Links are available at the Prime Minister and his Cabinet Web site, Links to Ministries and Other Organizations (external link).
Government Information in English
Any government report or information written in English can be searched at E-gov (external link).
For more information on Japan see:
- Global Legal Monitor: Japan
- Guide to Law Online: Japan
- Children's Rights: Japan
- Habeas Corpus Rights: Japan
- Article 9 of the Constitution; Japan
- WWII POW and Forced Labor Compensation Cases: Japan
Last Updated: 08/07/2012