NAHA, Okinawa — If a recent two-hour forum held here on Japan’s new lay jury system is any indication, many Japanese citizens would rather leave justice to the judges.

Momoko Uehara, 33, of Naha was among 30 people who participated in a forum hosted by the Naha District Court in late April. She sat patiently as the presiding judge explained the new system in which citizens picked by lottery would sit alongside judges in major felony cases.

But at the end she was not convinced she was ready to be a lay judge.

"What if I am chosen? The idea that my decision could directly affect the fate of a person makes me very nervous," she said. "The thought will probably haunt me for the rest of my life."

She said her other worry is being able to express her opinion before professional judges.

"Even today, during the forum, there were some questions I wanted to ask the judge, but I was too tense," she said.

Her 64-year-old mother shared her concern.

"We will keep asking ourselves if we made the right decision because we have to make such a professional decision within a limited knowledge and experience we have," she said.

Another woman said she thought it would be difficult for the lay jurors and professional judges to regard each other on an equal footing.

"I think there is a perception gap between professional judges and lay people, and it is difficult for us to have a discussion on an equal platform," she said.

Hiroyuki Yoshii, the presiding judge, said he has conducted seven mock trials in the past three years and discussions between the citizens and judges became smoother each time.

"I feel that we are moving to the right direction," he said. "The mock trials convinced me that lay judges are fully capable of fulfilling their roles and that there is no fear that they would sway by emotion."

A man in his 30s wondered if he could be singled out for retaliation if he served on a jury panel.

Yoshii told him not to worry.

"No such thing has happened in my 19-year career," he said.

Another woman wondered if some trials might continue longer than the three-day average Yoshii suggested during his briefing.

"We will make every effort for speedy trials," he said. "However, in serious cases which could result in the death penalty or life imprisonment, I do not believe speedy trial always serves the best."

According to a recent poll, only 20 percent of citizens are willing to serve as lay judges. Another 40 percent are reluctant, but would serve if they had to, Yoshii said.

"I think this figure shows the soundness of Japanese people," he said. "A trial is a serious matter which affects the entire life of a person, therefore, a sound mind would rather stay away and not being involved if it is possible."

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