Cultural differences emerge at Tokyo District Court

Friday 08 March 2013 09.06
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Tokyo District Court houses dozens of court rooms, cut off from any natural sunlight
Tokyo District Court houses dozens of court rooms, cut off from any natural sunlight
Nicola Furlong died in Tokyo last May
Nicola Furlong died in Tokyo last May
Her family have remained polite and friendly throughout their ordeal
Her family have remained polite and friendly throughout their ordeal
Richard Hinds is accused of the murder of Nicola Furlong
Richard Hinds is accused of the murder of Nicola Furlong

RTÉ's Robert Shortt reports from Tokyo, Japan.

The Tokyo District Court is a massive block of a building.

Its imposing walls are covered in thousands of grey tiles. Floor upon floor of offices occupied by lawyers and officials sit atop a bulging mid-section.

This houses dozens of court rooms, cut off from any natural sunlight.

The District Court hears all of the most important criminal and civil court cases in the Tokyo district. It’s one step below Japan’s Supreme Court.

Every day, hundreds of lawyers, plaintiffs and observers stream through its main concourse. They are saluted through the scanners by impeccably white-gloved police guards with a bow.

The guards are perhaps beginning to get used to a rag-tag group of Irish and British journalists, along with one Australian reporter, here to cover the trial of the man accused of murdering Nicola Furlong.

They may well now also be used to seeing the dignified group that is the Furlong family and their four loyal friends from Wexford.

They arrive every morning together in two taxis. They are never less than polite and friendly through what continues to be an ordeal.

Nicola’s younger sister, Andrea, carries a framed photograph of her sister. She places it on her lap during the long court days.

They never miss a thing.

Sitting two rows over is an African-America lady and her son.

Vivienne and Claude Hinds, mother and older brother to the accused, Richard, arrived on Wednesday. They both wear beaded bracelets with the words "In Rich We Believe".

There’s no contact between Mr Hinds and his family, though I spotted him giving his mother a wink at the end of one court day. It’s a sombre, highly formal atmosphere.

The families have been given reserved seats with blue covers. The journalists are given seats with white covers. Well, we’re given two seats, the rest of us left to scramble with the assorted law students, observers and members of the general public who drift in and out of the court.

Our nominated representatives must go to the public affairs office every morning to receive their green armbands. The armband wearers can only sit in the white covered chairs. This is Japan. There is a system.

And there are the yellow-armbanded officials who make sure you stick to the system. The invasion of foreign journalists has given the public affairs department of the Tokyo District Court sleepless nights.

We have broken many rules. And no doubt we will break many more.

The court system itself is very different to ours. On the judges’ bench, there are three professional judges. At the centre is the chief judge. Flanking them are six civilian judges.

They are like our jurors, although they get to ask questions directly of witnesses.

Bundles of documents are brought into the court bound up in furoshiki, or Japanese wrapping cloths. They look a bit like picnic boxes, and seem oddly cheerful.

There hasn’t been much to smile about in this trial, but there was one moment this week when the impish fun of two young Irish women shone through.

During her testimony, the friend of Ms Furlong explained how the two American men told them they were in a band touring Japan. Their reply to them was: "Oh yeah? We’re in a band too."

It was a Lost in Translation moment. Because Nicola and her friend weren’t in a band. And even when it had been translated and explained as a joke, it was still lost. But for a family sitting through hours of pain, it raised a rare smile.