Summary Court (簡易裁判所 Kan'i-saiban-sho)
There are 438 Summary Courts scattered all around Japan. They mostly handle small claims civil cases (disputes not in excess of ¥900,000), as well as minor criminal offenses. They are only able to imprison defendants in a few special cases, and cannot in any event imprison a defendant for more than three years. Summary Courts are presided over by one judge.
Civil cases in the Summary Court are appealed to the District Court, while criminal cases are appealed to the High Court.
District Court (地方裁判所 Chihô-saiban-sho)
There is one District Court in each prefecture, except for Hokkaido which has four. District Courts have original jurisdiction in felony cases and in civil cases where the disputed amount is over ¥900,000. They also handle bankruptcy hearings.
Each District Court trial is presided over by at least one judge: two associate judges are also called in for appellate cases, or for criminal cases where the maximum penalty would be in excess of 1 year in prison. Attorneys sit on either side of the courtroom, facing the center. In a criminal case, the accused faces the judges from the rear of the courtroom. The witness box is in the center, also facing the judges.
Family Court (家庭裁判所 Katei-saiban-sho)
There is a Family Court tied to each District Court, as well as over 200 branch offices throughout the country. Family Courts primarily deal with divorce and juvenile delinquency cases, although they have a broad jurisdiction that encompasses all forms of domestic disputes, including correcting koseki registration data and partitioning estates. Their power is largely limited to mediation, and if a settlement cannot be reached between the parties, the case is transferred to the District Court.
High Court (高等裁判所 Kôtô-saiban-sho)
There are nine High Courts. Eight are regional, located in Sapporo, Sendai, Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, Takamatsu, and Fukuoka. Each one serves a defined circuit of several prefectures, in the same way that the United States Courts of Appeals each cover several states. There are also "branch offices" of the district courts in Akita, Toyama, Okayama, Matsue, Miyazaki, and Naha.
The ninth High Court is the Intellectual Property High Court (知的財産高等裁判所 Chiteki-zaisan-kôtô-saiban-sho), a tiny affair located in the same building as the Tokyo High Court. It specializes in patent cases, much like the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
The High Court usually sits in the same manner as a three-judge District Court, although it sits with five judges for certain cases (such as Fair Trade Commission-related cases). Each court is led by a President, who is appointed by the Cabinet.
The High Courts are Japan's intermediate appellate courts. An appeal to the High Court is called 控訴 kôso in Japanese. There are four circumstances in which a case can be appealed to the High Court:
Supreme Court (最高裁判所 Saikô-saiban-sho)
- Non-compliance with procedural law in the trial
- Errors in the interpretation or application of law in the judgment
- Excessive severity or leniency in the sentencing
- Fact-finding errors
As in the United States, the Supreme Court is the only court explicitly created by the Japanese Constitution (chapter VI). It is located adjacent to the Diet building in Nagatacho, Tokyo.
The "Grand Bench" (大法廷 Daihôtei) of the Supreme Court has fifteen justices, who are appointed by the Cabinet with the Emperor's approval. The Grand Bench is subdivided into three "Petty Benches" (小法廷 Shôhôtei) of five justices each, who hear incoming appeals and recommend them for an audience before the Grand Bench.
The current Chief Justice is Machida Akira.
An appeal to the Supreme Court is called 上告 jôkoku, and such an appeal requires either:
- An error in the interpretation of the Constitution
- An error in the interpretation of case law from the Supreme Court or High Court