Japan has a unitary, centralized system of governance, not a federal one. The country and its citizens are protected by means of national laws. Nevertheless, the characteristic of constitutional arrangements in Japan is a measure of local autonomy in administrative and legislative, but not judicial, matters (Saibansho 45). Japan has a three tier court system with the district courts, high courts, and the Supreme Court. Japan also has summary and family courts (Saibansho 10).
The district courts at the first tier. There are 50 district courts with additional 203 branch offices throughout the country staffed by around 910 judges and 460 assistant judges. The district courts have both original and appellate jurisdiction (Dean 348).Where the court is acting as a court of appeal for civil matters from the summary courts, there must be a board of justices that consists of three judges. However, where the district courts exercise original jurisdiction, cases may be handled by a single judge. The number of judges and assistant judges assigned to the district courts is determined by the Supreme Court (Dean 348).
There are eight high courts. Each court is led by a President, who is appointed by the Cabinet. The main function of the high court is proceeding in appeal. Civil court appeals from the summary court go to the district one, while criminal appeals go directly from the summary court to the high court. District court appeals and appeals from quasi-judicial governmental bodies go to one of the eight high courts of Japan (Hahn 19). The judgment of the court is unanimous, and there is no dissenting opinion (Dean 352).
At the apex of the judicial hierarchy is the Supreme Court that is located in Tokyo. It has territorial jurisdiction over the whole of the country. The judicial power is vested in the Supreme Court and inferior courts. The Constitution states “the Supreme Court is the court of last resort with power to determine the constitutionality of any law, order, regulation or official act” (Dean 353).
The Supreme Court consists of 14 judges and the Chief Justice. All judges are appointed by the Cabinet, although the Chief Justice is appointed by the Emperor (Dean 353). Supreme Court judges must be over the age of 40. Not less than 10 of them had to be High Court presidents or judges for at least 10 years or have 20 years’ experience as a lower court judge, public prosecutor, practicing lawyer or law professor (Dean 354).
The majority of decisions are rendered on the basis of the documentary evidence alone, oral statements from the parties may be heard. When the court announces its judgment, it usually doesn`t give the reasons. The text of the decision is given to the parties later, as well as being made available to the public. Unlike decisions made by other courts, those of the Supreme Court must include the decision of each judge (Dean 354).
Today, all judges in courts below the Supreme Court enter the judiciary as a lifelong career after about two years at the Legal Training and Research Institute. They can enter it by passing extremely competitive national examinations conducted by the Supreme Court (Saibansho 10). Nonresidents of Japan cannot attend the school. The Legal Training and Research Institute is Japan's only post-graduate law school for those pursuing a nonacademic career course, and it is the training ground alike for Japan’s judges, prosecutors, and lawyers (Saibansho 10).
Therefore, the shape of Japanese law and judicial decisions today is further affected by the fact that Japan is basically a civil law nation, not a common law country like the United States (Saibansho 8). The present court system did not emerge naturally either from Japanese legal culture or the relative new prewar court system. It was designed by Americans and Japanese connected with Occupation agencies in some way after the Second World War and put in place with dispatch (Saibansho 8).