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International relations

Japan's judicial diplomacy at crossroads as Laos enacts civil code

Legal assistance to Southeast Asia brings result, but budget constraints loom

TOKYO -- A quarter-century of Japanese "judicial diplomacy" is bearing fruit in Southeast Asia. On May 27, Laos became the third country in Southeast Asia, after Vietnam and Cambodia, to introduce a civil code with Japanese support.

Japan's long-term engagement on the topic has resulted in it being allowed for the first time to participate in a conference of senior legal officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The ASEAN Senior Law Officials Meeting, or ASLOM, will discuss cybersecurity and other cross-border legal issues.

Gaining a seat at the conference table reflects the "trust Japan has gained through down-to-earth support programs and the creation of human networks," said Noriko Shibata, head of the International Affairs Division at the Ministry of Justice.

Since starting with Vietnam in 1994, Japan has continued to offer legal advice to Southeast Asian nations, including Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar. Japan helps them draft legislative bills and educate judicial experts.

Japan has kept up the assistance to help firmly plant concepts such as respect for the rule of law and human rights in Southeast Asian nations. It also hopes to strengthen its own international standing, while simultaneously creating attractive destinations for investments by contributing to the region's stable economic development.

The Justice Ministry's international division was established in 2018 to lead Japan's judicial diplomacy. It works to encourage countries in Southeast Asia and elsewhere to introduce Japanese-style legal systems. Legal development is an official development assistance tool that requires less money than infrastructure improvements and other programs.

Laos holds a ceremony in February 2019 to commemorate the completion of a civil code prepared with Japan's assistance. 

Japan used to offer legal infrastructure aid at other countries' requests, but it established the new division to pursue more active support. Before that, Japan's judicial diplomacy faced criticism that it lacked a strategy.

To be sure, Japan is not alone. The U.S., European countries, and international organizations like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank also provide legal development support.

But assistance by foreign countries and international organizations generally prioritizes results in the form of "efficiently shaping" legal systems, whereas "Japan emphasizes process," said Hiroshi Matsuo, a graduate school professor of law at Keio University who has been involved in legal cooperation with developing nations.

In short, Japan offers a "partnership type" of assistance to such countries based on its own experience of introducing Western legal systems. During the Meiji Era, which lasted from 1868 to 1912, Japan carried out a rapid modernization of its previously isolated and feudal society.

That Meiji Era experience means Japan has been able to maintain a "high competitive advantage in Asia," said Taro Morinaga, head of the International Cooperation Department at the Justice Ministry's Research and Training Institute.

With Japan's help, Laos has worked out its own civil code over a six-year period. Including the preparatory period, the process took 15 years in total. Contract and property law in Laos were separate, which meant problems of overlap and omission. Japan helped the country combine them into a single civil code.

Katsunori Irie, a Japanese lawyer involved in the process, said the new body of laws has been "completely updated and incorporates Laotian culture."

But simply drafting, updating, and enforcing laws does not guarantee that they end up having the desired effect.

In Cambodia, Japan had to abandon its partnership-type approach after the country's intellectual class was decimated in the genocide carried out by the Pol Pot regime in the 1970s. Instead, Japan exported its own civil laws and procedures.

The result is that the laws "are appreciated locally, but have become useless," said Nobuaki Murakami, a Japanese lawyer in Cambodia.

In Vietnam, Japan helped establish a wide range of laws that cover the administrative and civil codes, as well as bankruptcy. But while the country has developed economically, local legal practitioners emphasize that there is a shortage of people to ensure they are effectively implemented.

"Administrative officials use laws incorrectly from time to time," said Ryo Matsutani, a Vietnam-based Japanese attorney. "Even if a law is good, it is meaningless unless it is correctly understood."

Japan is aware of the problem there and has been inviting Vietnamese personnel for training and dispatching Japanese experts. But those efforts have failed to fully address the problem because of budgetary restrictions.

More than a quarter-century since beginning legal development assistance for the region in 1994, Japan now stands at a potential turning point in its future engagement. By the end of this year, the government plans to decide whether to continue its support program for Vietnam.

But the assistance provided until now also means Vietnam has reached a point where it can possibly help other countries. Noting that Vietnam's legal system is similar to those in its neighbors like Laos, the Justice Ministry's Shibata said joint support between Tokyo and Hanoi for Southeast Asian nations is "an option."

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