[Viewpoint] Yamaguchi vs. SNS judges

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[Viewpoint] Yamaguchi vs. SNS judges

Exactly five years ago, I had written about Yoshitada Yamaguchi, a judge in post-war Japan. The judge who described the president as “pro- American to the core” on a social networking service reminded me of him. Immediately after Japan was defeated in World War II, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters limited the daily food rations for an adult to 300 grams (10.6 ounces), about the same level that was given to the North Koreans during the Arduous March. Over 1.2 million people were caught selling or buying rice on the black market.

Under the strict law on food control, high school teacher Eishiro Kameo starved to death as he refused to buy illegal food while advising students to live by the law. He spent his last three days in October 1945 only eating two onions.

Two years later in October 1947, Yoshitada Yamaguchi chose death. He was a judge at the Tokyo District Court in charge of adjudicating violations of the food control law. He was anguished that he had to put so many offenders in jail. He wrote in his diary, “The food control law is a bad law that leaves the citizens starved to death. However, even bad laws are the law, and I am pledged to defend the law.”

“If I consume rice from the black market, how can I judge the offenders? I would rather die of starvation happily under the food control law,” the judge added.

Yamaguchi would give his rice ration to his two children and have porridge with his wife. While the family had raised vegetables in their garden, they suffered from serious malnutrition. He also refused invites from friends and relatives or offers to send food from the countryside. He was surely aware that other legal professionals had purchased rice from the black market. He wrote, “The legal order is growing chaotic, and I will have to continue the march to death by myself.” At age 33, he fell from the stairs after a trial and died.

Yamaguchi, a graduate of Kyoto University, and Kameo, a graduate of Tokyo University, were elite members of Japanese society. They could have enjoyed a comfortable life if they wished. However, they made extreme choices in order to be faithful to their positions.

Their lives were shocking and moving. MacArthur’s headquarters granted full independence to the judiciary, which was once considered the puppet of war criminals. The teachers were no longer considered the “evangelists of military imperialism” and regained social trust and respect.

A judge who posted derogatory words about President Lee Myungbak argued that judges, too, have privacy and freedom of speech. He is right, indeed. However, Yamaguchi was also just another civilian at home, and he had the privacy to buy blackmarket rice as well as the freedom to refuse to die of starvation. While Yamaguchi claimed that “A judge is a judge,” the judges who made controversial postings on social networking services say, “A judge is a person, too.” It is up to the citizens to decide which argument is more trustworthy and inspiring.

Facebook is a private space. We cannot apply the old yardstick of political neutrality for judges. While the ethics committee of the Supreme Court advises judges to use discretion, they are not likely to back down. One even dared the Korea Communications Commission to review his tweets actively. If Yamaguchi comes alive and says, “A judge is a judge,” he would have to endure severe cyberattacks.

The opposition party and Internet users praise the SNS judges as “acting their conscience.” However, I cannot help but feel that the SNS judges are too frivolous. A prosecutor created controversy over receiving expensive presents and some defendants use vulgar language with judges during trial. These issues may all be natural consequences of the misdeeds of the justice system.

Yamaguchi died in the period when people said, “All the honest men in Japan are either dead or in jail.” Yamaguchi made a last pledge to his wife, “Please only use rationed rice when preparing my meals. I may die of starvation, but it would be better than compromising my conscience as a judge.” The distance between the conscience of Yamaguchi and the conscience of the SNS judges is too far.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Cheol-ho
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