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Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2010
Minors in own category but never above the law
By MASAMI ITO
Jan. 11 marks Coming of Age Day, an annual holiday to celebrate people who have reached legal adulthood.
Streets become festive as young women in "furisode" kimono and dresses and young men in suits and "hakama" kimono turn out.
Becoming an adult, however, is not only about freedom and independence. It entails legal duties and obligations. And at the same time, being a minor does not mean a complete lack of responsibilities. Following are questions and answers about minors:
What is Japan's age of adulthood?
Article 4 of the Civil Law stipulates that the age of majority is 20. Once turning 20, individuals have the right to vote, drink, smoke and sign legal contracts without parental consent.
Although there is no direct reference to surgery, such operations are generally considered "legal contracts" and most hospitals require parental consent if the patient is a minor. The same goes for abortions.
Has Japan considered lowering the age of adulthood to 18?
Yes. In 2007, the Diet approved a law to establish procedures for a national referendum to revise the Constitution. And the law stipulates that all citizens age 18 and over will be allowed to participate in the referendum.
With this, the government has begun holding discussions on revising the Civil Law to lower the age of adulthood to match the referendum law.
In China, Great Britain and France, 18 is the age of majority. In the United States, 18 is the age people are allowed to vote and bear most adult responsibilities, although states generally ban drinking until age 21.
There is concern in Japan, however, that if the age of majority is lowered, 18- and 19-year-olds may find themselves caught up in fraudulent business contracts, or engaged in legal but potentially addictive gambling practices, including spending vast sums on horse and boat races.
An 18-year-old meanwhile may be old enough to cast a vote but not be regarded as mature enough to handle the lure of alcohol and tobacco.
What about organ transplants?
Until recently, the organ transplant law prohibited anyone under age 15 from donating organs, and thus many children had to undergo transplants overseas. But last July, the Diet passed a bill that scrapped the age limit.
This revision has enabled organ donations regardless of age, as long as family members agree, and the potential donor does not refuse.
What options are open for minors?
Minors can get their driver's license at 18, and 16-year-olds can qualify to drive motorcycles with engine displacements under 400cc.
Minors can also legally marry, but males must be at least 18 and females 16.
Minors seeking to wed require parental consent. Once married, minors officially become recognized as adults under the Civil Law, except when it comes to drinking, smoking and voting.
Is there a minimum age for performing labor?
Yes. The Labor Standards Law stipulates that one must be at least 15 to hire out for work. But those who are 13 and older can, with government permission, also do light labor if deemed not harmful to the minor's health and welfare.
People even younger than 13 can work in film production and theatrical performances.
What happens when a minor commits a crime?
People between age 14 and 19 are sent to their local family court and given a closed-door trial.
The court decides whether the child should be sent to a reformatory or a facility that fosters independence, or given probation.
Offenders under 14 cannot be charged with violating the Penal Code and would be subject to child-welfare consultation centers instead of family courts.
Cases of serious crimes can be handed over to a juvenile court to be handled as a special case. A 2007 revision of the Juvenile Law lowered the age of those who can be sent to a reformatory to "around 12," drawing criticism that the amendments were made for harsher punishments.
For those older than 14, a family court could also decide, depending on the seriousness of the offense, to turn a case over to prosecutors, where the minor could face trial as an adult.
"It is completely different to be tried under the Juvenile Law or to be tried as an adult," said Hiroko Goto, a professor at Chiba University who specializes in laws and minors. "The Juvenile Law is prospective, focusing on the future (of the offender) and what kind of support the defendant needs, as opposed to being retrospective for adults who must take responsibility for their actions."
What is the juvenile crime rate and what offenses are most common?
Crimes committed by minors, when the offense is particularly heinous, get a lot of media play and hence leave the impression that such mayhem is on the increase.
But 2008 data by the National Police Agency show the juvenile crime rate had been declining for the previous five years.
The number of instances when people between age 14 and 19 were either arrested or placed in protective custody has dropped, from 141,721 in 1999 to 90,966 in 2008.
The NPA figures show that arrests of minors for heinous crimes, including murder, robbery, arson and rape, have also dropped, from 2,237 in 1999 to 956 in 2008.
Can a minor be sentenced to death?
Yes. According to the Juvenile Law, death sentences can be handed down to people aged 18 and older.
"Handing down capital punishment means there is no possibility for the defendant to be reformed," Goto said. "It is an extremely rare determination that a minor has no possibility of being rehabilitated, that it is pointless" to even attempt corrective action.
A famous example was Norio Nagayama, who was 19 when he gunned down four people in 1968. His death sentence was finalized by the Supreme Court in 1990.
Nagayama went on to author a number of influential books behind bars and became an award-winning writer. He was hanged in August 1997.
His case became the precedent for courts in handing down the death penalty.
Another notable case is the 1999 strangling of a young mother in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture, for which an 18-year-old youth, whose name has been withheld, stands accused. He also allegedly raped her corpse and killed her baby.
The Hiroshima High Court in April 2008 sentenced the defendant to hang. His appeal is before the Supreme Court.