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Kiyoko Okabe, Justice of the Supreme Court

Update: March 24,2016

Aspired to be appointed as a judge while a student at Keio Girls Senior High School
After serving as a judge at district courts and family courts and teaching at university, she was unexpectedly appointed as Justice of the Supreme Court

Kiyoko Okabe, Justice of the Supreme Court

Born in 1949 in Tokyo. After graduating from Keio Chutobu Junior High School and Keio Girls Senior High School, she graduated from the Faculty of Law in 1971. Okabe passed the national bar examination when she was a student at the Graduate School of Law. In 1974, she started legal apprentice training, and in 1976 was appointed as an assistant judge. She served at the Nagoya District Court, Sapporo District/Family Court, and Tokyo District Court, and was appointed as a judge while at Oita District/Family Court. After serving as a judge of the Tokyo Family Court, she resigned from her post in 1993. In 1994, she became Part-time Lecturer at the Keio University Faculty of Law, and also served as Professor at the Toyo University Faculty of Law and as a public interest member of the Central Labor Relations Commission. In 2007, she became Professor at Keio University Law School. She was appointed Justice of the Supreme Court in 2010.


A hard-worker who loves to study

─Ms. Kiyoko Okabe studied at the Faculty of Law, and now serves as the Justice of the Supreme Court. The Justice of the Supreme Court is a position of great responsibility. With only 15 members including the Chief Justice, they have the central role in Japanese judicature. Please tell us how you decided to apply for the position of a judge.

When I was in elementary school, there was a teacher who was quite enthusiastic about entrance exams, and one day he told me that I should go to Keio. I still don’t know why he said that. In any case, in accordance with his advice, I was able to go straight to Keio Chutobu Junior High School, and my mother was the one who was most pleased with it. I think she thought that I would be able to proceed to Keio Girls Senior High School and then to university, and find a good partner to marry. However, throughout my junior and senior high school days, I developed a strong inferiority complex. That was because people around me were all very talented. They had good grades, they were good at sports, playing the piano, and even drawing pictures—and furthermore, they were fluent in English, had cheerful personalities and on top of all that, they were pretty. I thought I didn’t stand a chance against them.
I was born to a small merchant family in Nihonbashi and I grew up simply a healthy and mischievous girl, so after worrying about my situation, although I felt sorry for my mother, I decided that the only way for me was to become independent with a job. It wasn’t a time when women could serve important positions in corporations, so my choices were to be a doctor or a legal professional. After a self-analysis, I determined that I was not outgoing but I had confidence in my ability to study tenaciously, so when I had to decide on which faculty to proceed to, I had already made up my mind to be a legal professional, specifically a judge, and entered the Faculty of Law.

─However, the national bar examination is extremely difficult to pass.

Even knowing that it was difficult, my desire to be appointed as a judge had never changed, and I just kept studying through university and graduate school. I passed the bar exam in 1973 in my second year of graduate school, and during the two years before the exam, except for eating and sleeping, I spent all my time studying. You might say that I like studying (laughs).


Towards a career as a judge

─After passing the national bar exam, regardless of whether you aim to be a judge, prosecutor, or attorney—which are the three elements of the judicial community—you must undergo legal apprentice training at the Legal Training and Research Institute. What kind of training is it?

Studying for the national bar exam is to study the theory of law. The Legal Training and Research Institute is where you gain practical skills. The term is two years.* During the first four months, we all take the same lectures and we have practical lessons. After that, we are all assigned to a court, a bar association, and a public prosecutors office by rotation to learn about legal practices. At the court, you would be given a desk in a judges’ chamber, and you would deal with practical affairs with the judges, and also prepare drafts of judgments. At the public prosecutor’s office, you can observe interrogations closely, or write charging sheets. I already had decided to apply for the position of judge, but some people decided their paths after figuring out which field best suits them during this training.
I was appointed as a legal apprentice together with just under 500 people, which is about a quarter as many as there are today. There was an almost idyllic atmosphere back then, and just as people say that colleagues who join a company in the same year develop deep and lasting relationships, although we have taken different paths, I still maintain close relationships with my peers today despite the 40 years that have passed. However, even if it’s only a one-year difference, there exists a strong sense of social hierarchy between juniors and seniors, and you could say that in the judicial circle there is a strict seniority system similar to what you could see in Japanese sports clubs.

* Currently, the duration is one year.

─So you were appointed as a judge, and it seems you were transferred quite often.

When you join the court, you are first appointed as an assistant judge. I started out at Nagoya District Court, was transferred to Sapporo District /Family Court, Tokyo District Court, and to Oita District/Family Court, and I was appointed a judge when I was in Oita. It is provided by law that it takes ten years to be appointed as a judge. Assistant judges cannot handle a trial alone, so they take the associate judge’s seat to the left hand side of the presiding judge** in three-judge panels where three judges decide on sentences or judgments, while being trained in person by a senior judge. However, after five years of experience, you can be appointed an exceptional assistant judge, who can conduct a trial alone. Major trials that appear on the news are mainly handled by three-judge panels where there is a line-up of three judges, but actually, most trials are handled alone. Also, judges cannot choose which cases to take, so you are required to deal with any kind of case.
I think the job of a judge is much busier than what most people think. We open a court three days a week, use a day for settlement procedures or to have discussions with the parties involved, and the other day for research and to write judgments. However, we never have enough time, and I used to spend most of my weekends drafting judgments. People who have been appointed as judges like to work, and most of them don’t seem to think that the job is too tough. Maybe judges are all severe workaholics (laughs).

** In a three-judge panel, the judge that sits on the left hand side of the presiding judge. Young assistant judges take this seat.

─So I guess it’s a profession for people who like studying and working. Can you choose where to work, or choose between district courts and family courts?

You can submit your preferences, but even if it doesn’t go through as you hope, most people take the new post that they are appointed to. In my case, I mostly served at several different district courts until I transferred to the courts in Oita, and then in Tokyo I was assigned to a family court. Family courts handle disputes between married couples or parents and their children, and cases concerning delinquent juveniles. Rather than clarifying right or wrong based on law, we try to find out what is behind the disputes or delinquencies and take appropriate measures, prioritizing an amicable settlement or to straighten up the lives of the juveniles. About 70% of the disputes are divorce-related, and the second-most common issue is inheritance. We aim at solving cases as much as possible through conciliation or discussions, however, recently more cases are solved by rulings.

─In 1993, you resigned from the post of judge, and from the next year you started to teach at university. Were there any specific reasons for that?

There were a few, but the primary reason was that I wanted to be an academic. When I was at Tokyo Family Court, once a year, I would do work as a researcher at the Legal Research and Training Institute, and under a fixed theme, I would conduct research on inheritance from a legal and practical perspective. That was when I realized that when you try to apply an inheritance-related law in actual disputes, there are many cases in which they do not proceed smoothly. This is because it was thought that the law should not get too involved in family issues, and therefore no one had really probed into inheritance-related laws. However, this causes confusion for practitioners. So I chose this under-studied field, wanting to investigate it deeply as an academic.
The reason for my resignation was to conduct research, but when I started to teach Keio University undergraduate students as a lecturer, I found many students candid, serious-minded, and brilliant, and teaching quite enjoyable. After that, I became a professor at Toyo University, and then came back to Keio University, and in parallel with my research, I started to teach at the Keio University Law School to offer guidance to students preparing for the national bar exam. I used the Socrates method, which is a practical way to deepen understanding by asking all sorts of questions to the students and by repeating dialogues. Even today when I visit a certain region on business, I often meet young assistant judges who tell me that they were my students, which makes me very happy.
Then one day, I was contacted out of the blue about an appointment to the Justice of the Supreme Court. I never gave any thought to the idea that one day such a thing would happen, so I was very surprised. I asked myself whether I was really capable of taking on such a huge responsibility, and after solidifying my resolve, I decided to take the post.

─What do you value as the Justice of the Supreme Court?

It is literally the highest court within the judicial branch. Whether it is a civil, criminal, or administrative case, if the case is appealed, the Supreme Court is the court of final appeal. The judgment will then be used as a standard in future trials, so in order to decide, I thoroughly investigate and study it to reach a decision I am confident of. Also in my case, I was appointed to this post because of the value placed on my experience as an academic, so I feel it important not only to present an appropriate result but also to construct a logical argument as to why the judgment is appropriate. My days of studying just keep coming.


Into the world of the Civil Code

─Please tell us about your memories of your school days.

Soon after entering university, I learned in class that even a short sentence such as Article 1-3 of the Civil Code at the time that read “The enjoyment of private rights shall commence at birth” has an interpretation issue, and that this sentence also means that we are all equal at birth. After reading Minpo Kogi(Lectures on the Civil Code) by Sakae Wagatsuma and taking lectures of then-Associate Professor Satoshi Nitta on the study of law, I opened my eyes to how interesting the Civil Code is.
Then Professor Keishiro Uchiike, who taught the general provisions of the Civil Code, mentioned that the entry point for getting interested in law is through studying logic, history, or philosophy, and that students should come into the world of law from any of these entrance points, which was memorable to me. Since I am the typical straight-laced person, I started from logic, and eventually broadened my interest towards philosophy and history. Laws are the result of the long history of human beings, so legal professionals must have good knowledge of history and philosophy.
I joined a seminar class on property law of Professor Nitta who was young and had just become Associate Professor. Every class, our assignment was to write a report on a case on B4-sized sheets of paper, and during class, we all presented our reports and discuss the issue. The debate would heat up and we often went on until midnight. We would stay at the library with the determination to read all the reference books and documents in the library to tackle difficult assignments, which is now a fond memory.
Other than studying, I joined a sort of group activity or voluntary seminar class, where some students voluntarily gathered to read books on the Civil Code. Well, I guess this was also “studying”… I have no recollection of just hanging out, but it was just so exciting to engage my peers in heated debates.
However, I have enjoyed looking at paintings and drawing pictures since childhood. I only have very limited talent for drawing, so I gave it up at an early stage. I am not good at drawing, but I can write legal papers, so here I am today. I still like to go and view paintings. I like seeing works by energetic young artists. I get moved by the seriousness of first-time award winning pieces at exhibitions, and when I get in touch with Southeast Asian contemporary art, I am able to get a sense of what today’s world is about. Also, I try to find time to make woodblock prints.

─Finally, could you give a message to current Keio University students?

All I hope students do is to study. In the world of sports, people say that practice never betrays you, and the same thing can be said for studying. I was appointed as Justice of the Supreme Court unexpectedly, but I am quite sure that the hard work during my university days has become the source of my inner confidence that has supported me. Also, this is a favor I am asking you as a judge: if you ever get selected as a citizen judge, your cooperation would be very much appreciated.

─Thank you very much.

*This article appeared in the 2016 winter edition (No.289) of “Juku.”
*Position titles, etc., are those at the time of publishing.