The modern Japanese legal system has its foundations in the Constitution of Japan (nihonkoku kenpō), which was adopted in 1947. It was drafted to reflect Japan’s obligation to implement democratic principles following its surrender at the end of World War II. While indigenous legal traditions remain influential in certain areas of the Japanese judicial system, it may be classified as a civil law tradition fashioned on European legal systems, particularly German and French law. Certain areas of law have also been influenced by American law.
Japan’s “three-tiered” judicial system consists of a court of first instance and two levels of appeal. Within this system there are four levels of courts, as provided below.
District Courts (chihō saibansho)
District Courts are the primary Court of first instance and have jurisdiction over ordinary civil and criminal cases. They also hear appeals arising from Summary Court judgements and rulings in civil cases. There 50 district courts and each prefecture has one, with the exception of Hokkaido, which has four.
High courts (kōtō saibansho)
High courts have appellate jurisdiction over decisions by district, family and summary courts. They are located in eight major cities: Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Sendai, Sapporo and Takamatsu. They are also empowered to review the decisions of quasi-judicial bodies, such as the Fair Trade Commission, the Patent Office and the High Maritime Board.
Supreme Court (saikō saibansho)
The Supreme Court is at the top of the Japanese court hierarchy, as the primary organ of judicial power. It is responsible for the consistent interpretation and application of law. The Court is located in Tokyo and comprises fifteen justices, including the Chief Justice. It is dividend into three Petty Benches, which hear most appeals. The Grand Bench hears cases involving questions of constitutional interpretation or opinions contrary to prior judicial decisions of the Supreme Court.
Family Courts (katei saibansho)
Family Courts are tied to District Courts and their branches. They are specialised in family affairs and juvenile delinquency.
Summary Courts (kan’i saibansho)
Summary Courts have jurisdiction over minor criminal and civil cases. In civil cases, they handle cases involving claims not exceeding 1.4 million yen.