Locked up abroad? In Japan, there’s help.

New office will help Americans navigate Japanese courts

By Nicholas Nehamas

Courtroom sketch of a trial in Japan, where juries, oral arguments and witness testimony are rare. (Reuters)

Locked up abroad? For many Americans, it’s the ultimate nightmare.

But in Japan there’s help: a law center designed to assist foreigners as they navigate Japan’s complicated legal system.

The Tokyo Public Law Office’s Foreign and International Service Section (FISS) opened its doors last Monday. In an interview with Latitude News, Mikiko Otani, one of the two layers who runs the office, explains that Japan’s judiciary can sometimes overwhelm foreigners unfamiliar with its intricate workings.

“There is a huge difference between the Japanese system and others, including the United States,” says Otani. “For example, in Japan very rarely do judges call witnesses. Most of the proceedings here are based on written statements, so people don’t make oral arguments and, although it’s starting to change, we don’t really use juries.”

The Japan Times reports that there are over 2 million foreigners with valid visas living in Japan. But Otani says many of them have difficulty finding quality legal representation because of language barriers and the limited amount of information available on lawyers for foreign clients..

99 problems but a lawyer ain’t one

The FISS serves mainly American, Filipino and Chinese clients, providing both legal advice and in-court representation in a variety of areas including family, immigration and labor law, as well as criminal and general civil cases.

It’s an expansion of a previous service first offered in late 2010 by the Tokyo Public Law Office, a public interest law firm supported by the Tokyo Bar Association. That program found itself unable to deal with the volume of foreigners requesting help.

Mikiko Otani helps foreigners deal with Japan’s legal system.

The new office is located in the Minato district of Tokyo, where many expats live. While FISS’s lawyers are collectively fluent in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Korean, it plans to hire interpreters as needed from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

Otani earned a graduate degree at Columbia University and says her experience living in America made her want to work with foreigners in Japan.

“I lived in New York for two years as a student,” she explains, “and I realized that it’s a very difficult experience. I didn’t have any legal trouble but when one of my young children got sick and had to go to the emergency room, well, dealing with that kind of experience is the most stressful kind of thing.”

She specializes in family law and international human rights. Many of the Americans she works with are dealing with the messy results of divorce — child custody, visitation and child support — while living in a foreign land.

Otani’s colleague, Masako Suzuki, told the Japan Times that the office will also focus on helping asylum seekers and immigrants living on expired visas.

“We worry that illegal immigrants and refugees are excluded from the public legal system. Our goal is also to help those people,” she said.

“Access to a lawyer,” adds Otani, “is one of the fundamental human rights.”