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Tokyo District Court Civil Division: Current Status and Issues

Takao Nakayama

Takao Nakayama
Judge, Tokyo District Court

1. Introduction

In many cases, legal professionals find themselves reflecting upon their own careers during legal apprentices. The new assistant judges appointed this January were members of the 69th class. Personally, it is surprising that 30 years have already passed since I started my judicial career as a member of the 39th class. In this article, I will discuss the structure of the Civil Division at the Tokyo District Court where I am currently stationed. I will also give a brief introduction for the current status, issues, and our challenges in civil proceedings.

2. Structure of the Civil Division at the Tokyo District Court

The Tokyo District Court (head office) is probably the world’s largest district court in terms of both size and structure. Even when limiting discussions to the Civil Division only, there are 34 general divisions (including a main consultation division which has nearly twice the number of judges than other general divisions and 4 intensive medical divisions which focus on medical cases) and 17 specialized divisions (4 administrative divisions, 3 labor divisions, 4 intellectual property divisions, 1 commercial transaction division, 1 restraining division, 1 bankruptcy rehabilitation division, 1 executive division, 1 arbitration/leasehold non-contentious/construction division, and 1 transportation division), for a total of 51 divisions. There are nearly 300 judges and more than 700 staff members when including clerks. There are nearly 100 courts, both large and small (as of November 2016). In one year, the Tokyo District Court handles more than 40,000 ordinary lawsuits (lawsuits excluding those handled by specialized divisions) alone. Additionally, there are specialized lawsuits (more than 4,300) handled by specialized divisions, bankruptcy/rehabilitation cases (more than 10,000), executive cases (slightly less than 16,000), restraining cases (more than 3,800), arbitration cases (slightly less than 400), and labor dispute cases (slightly less than 1,000) (all numbers are for 2016). Furthermore, there are 14 criminal divisions with about 70 judges and more than 220 staff members when including clerks.

3. Current status and issues of civil proceedings

The Tokyo District Court head office has jurisdiction over an area with a high concentration of administrative agencies. The area is also the base for headquarters of many corporations, and is the political/economic center of Japan. It goes without saying that the court handles a high number of specialized and complex lawsuits which include advanced legal issues. For example, when looking back on my experience in general divisions, there were lawsuits seeking damages related to the consummation of contracts for the development of computer software (IT-related lawsuits). Damages were sought for failure to complete the desired product, or for defects in the completed products. When handling such cases, it is often difficult to find facts regarding the type of product for which creation had been agreed upon. In such cases, judges face the issue of how to handle basic knowledge in software, a specialized field which is difficult to visualize. Specifically, judges must determine how to share such knowledge with parties in the lawsuit. Furthermore, there are also cases in which individuals who incurred damages after purchasing financial products (structured bonds, etc.) seek compensation based on failure to fulfill obligation of accountability, etc. In such cases, judges are often required to work extremely hard to understand the structure of those financial products. The nuclear accident caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake has led to a large number of lawsuits claiming damages. In litigation claiming that the Japanese national government failed to exercise its regulatory authority, there is the need for specialized knowledge regarding safety measures, etc. for nuclear reactors. Lawsuits seeking damage compensation from nuclear power plant operators contain a variety of problems in terms of finding the scope of damages for which the nuclear accident has legally sufficient cause, including personal damage, business damage, and damage caused by harmful rumors.

Moreover, in conjunction with the spread of the internet, there are a large number of provisional orders and lawsuits seeking compensation for damage caused to reputation or privacy due to expressions posted on the internet. In this respect, as shown by a recent case in which the Supreme Court of Japan issued the first unified decision, courts are sometimes expected to determine standards for handling the conflict between the moral interests known as the “right to be forgotten”, and freedom of expression and the right of access.

There is also an obvious trend of internationalization of litigation with the globalization of economic activities. Speaking from my experience in the bankruptcy rehabilitation division, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of bankruptcy cases involving foreign creditors. Responses to lawsuits filed in foreign countries are becoming daily issues for the Tokyo District Court. Furthermore, in a bankruptcy case for the bitcoin exchange company, there was the issue of facilitating smooth filing of proof of claims by approximately 120,000 creditors throughout the world. In such cases, the internet is sometimes used.

Frequently, these cases are handled as panel cases (cases in which trial and verdict are handled by 3 judges). Frankly speaking, I feel that the number of complex and difficult cases is increasing. Currently, the specialty, complexity, diversity of values, and international aspects of cases are continuing to increase at an accelerated rate. Amidst such conditions, courts must enhance and strengthen their consultation. Divisions must utilize their full capabilities, including both offices of judges and offices of clerks. At the same time, it is necessary to ascertain the background and essence of problems raised in each lawsuit. Regarding issues in dispute for which parties to litigation desire judgment, courts must conduct intensive investigation of evidence within the corresponding trial period, and must strive to present a resolution which is as persuasive as possible.

4. Challenges for enhancing proceedings and verdicts

The Civil Division at the Tokyo District Court has taken on several challenges for enhancing/strengthening consultation, strengthening cooperation with clerks, and reforming procedures for organizing issues of dispute and evidence.

First, let us examine the enhancing and strengthening of consultation. Many divisions consist of 4 judges: 1 highly experienced presiding judge, 2 mid-career associate judges seated on the right of the presiding judge, and 1 relatively inexperienced associate judge seated on the left of the presiding judge. Furthermore, each division can form two panels with different associate judges seated on the right. By decreasing the number of independent cases handled by presiding judges, the Civil Division has created an environment in which presiding judges can apply sufficient effort to consultative cases. Moreover, although judges are in a position of fulfilling their duties independently, it is necessary to provide opportunities for them to objectively review their own trial verdicts in order to heighten the quality of those verdicts. Accordingly, using specific cases as a basis (consultative precedent), the Civil Division has started holding case review meetings for discussing the form of handling litigation between high court judges and district judges, and among divisions in the district court. Through these opportunities, it is necessary to create a culture where judges exchange opinions and engage in frank discussion which includes mutual criticism. Also, in order to create opportunities for divisions handling similar litigation to engage in discussion which exceeds internal consultation and to obtain a multifaceted perspective, the Civil Division is taking measures which include review meetings for exchanging opinions across divisions. For example, these measures are implemented for specific lawsuit types such as action for damages brought by shareholders on account of false statement on annual securities reports. Furthermore, since courts process specialized lawsuits, it is essential for courts to obtain knowledge related to those specialized fields. One measure for achieving this goal is effective utilization of specialized committee systems. Committees responsible for reviewing that effective utilization gather examples of rational utilization, and work to introduce and spread that utilization.

Next, in order to invigorate division functions, it is important to strengthen cooperation between the offices of judges and the offices of clerks. Judicial decisions are not only the work of the judges. When processing long-term unsettled cases and handling large-scale litigation, judge offices and clerk offices must share recognition regarding divisional goals and issues, and become organizations capable of subjectively considering the possible mutual contributions under division of roles. Effective leadership from presiding judges is needed in this situation, and the Civil Division is continuing efforts to share recognition through divisional meetings, etc.

Finally, in regards to reforming procedures for organizing issues of dispute and evidence, the Civil Division has continued to exchange opinions with Bar Associations for the past several years. Currently, we are invigorating frank oral debates and are continuing to discuss specific measures for early sharing of recognition regarding points of disputes with parties to litigations and their agents.

5. Conclusion

It is important to continue taking on the challenges listed above. Although these challenges will not produce immediate results, in order to fulfill the responsibility of a central court, we intend to repeat new measures in an effort to realize even better civil proceedings.
Takao Nakayama
Judge, Tokyo District Court

Takao Nakayama was born in Nagano Prefecture in 1960. He graduated from the Department of Law in the Chuo University Faculty of Law in 1982. He passed the national bar examination in 1984 (39th class). He was appointed as an assistant judge at the Osaka District Court in April 1987.
Afterwards, he held positions including assistant judge at the Nagano District Family Court, staff member at the Litigation Department of the Nagoya Legal Affairs Bureau, manager at the Shibata Branch of the Niigata District Family Court, judge at the Tokyo District Court, Deputy Director General (in charge of litigation) to the Minister of Justice, and judge at the Tokyo High Court. In July 2013, he was appointed as divisional head judge at the Tokyo District Court. He served as head judge at the general division and bankruptcy rehabilitation division. Currently, he serves as divisional head judge at the restraining division and the deputy director of the civil division. His main written works (edited works) include Guide for Bankruptcy Proceedings (2nd Edition) (Kinzai Institute for Financial Affairs, Inc.; 2015) and more.