Japanese Traffic Court Interpreting

Court Interpreting and Traffic Court in the US

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Photo by Nout Gons on Pexels.com

This article is a compilation of my research to prepare for court interpreting and understanding US and Japanese traffic laws. I hope that this will be useful for those interested in legal interpreting, Japanese translation and interpreting, and Japan-US comparative law. For those interested in learning more about the Japanese legal interpreting and translation I’ve included some legal Japanese terminology and an excerpt of laws in both English and Japanese. If you would like me to transliterate such terminology in future posts, please leave a comment below. This is the first post in my series on topics on legal translation and interpretation. If you have any topics related to Japanese translation or law that you’d be interested in reading about, leave a comment so I can add it to this series.

As a disclaimer, while I have experience working as an interpreter in manufacturing and at a film production, I am mainly a translator and am not certified as a court interpreter.

Interpreting is like the public performance version of translation.

Jean Herbert in the Interpreter’s Guide says the three main steps in interpreting are understanding, conversion, and delivery. So the interpreter must have a wide vocabulary and deep understanding of both languages as well as a background that allows them to understand the topic. For understanding the topic, prior research and an understanding of the interpretive performance is imperative. The conversion of this is taking the meaning of the utterance and transferring it to another linguistic code while maintaining the same register, tone, style, and meaning as the original. Some linguistic issues Herbert noted are: proverbs and metaphors, allusions to literary works, jokes or stories, speaker errors, obscure or ambiguous material, and inserted excerpts from written documents unseen by the interpreter. Once this utterance has been converted to another language, the interpreter still must deliver it, like an actor, with good articulation and without idiosyncratic gestures. After all, while the interpreter plays an active role conveying the message from one party to another, they are a conduit for this information and must not let their own thoughts, feelings, and opinions interfere with this information in either verbal or non-verbal forms of communication.

The two biggest fields of interpreting are court interpreting and healthcare interpreting. However, the largest employer of full-time Japanese/English interpreters in USA is actually the manufacturing industry. Please check out Allyson Larimer’s article for more information on this topic.

In the case of court interpreting, since the landmark case, U.S. ex. rel. Negron v. State of New York, 434 F.2d 386, US courts are required to allow or provide an interpreter for those who are Non-English Speaking (NES) or Limited English Proficiency (LEP) to appear in a court as the proceeding is required to be conducted in English, but the case is not valid if the defendant cannot understand the proceedings. The modality of court interpreting is often simultaneous, consecutive, and sight-translation. Simultaneous while the prosecution and defense make their opening and closing remarks, consecutive for witnesses, and performing sight-translation for any court documents or pieces of evidence handed to the their client.

Traffic Court Interpreting

Compared to most types of trials, traffic court (交通裁判所) is a relatively simple trial for both the defendant (被告) and an interpreter. Most traffic offenses do not qualify for trial by jury so they tend to be a more informal trial overseen by a judge and often conducted without a legal representation for either the defense or prosecution. In fact in many cases, there’s no one for the prosecution (起訴側) such as the officer on the scene or the victim in a minor crash. After all, in a mandatory court appearance is only mandatory for the defendant not the officer that issued the ticket nor for the victim of a crash.

Picture from “Trial by Judge: Understanding Traffic Court” at NOLO
So instead the defense  (被告側) must either prove their innocence by providing evidence (証拠) and witnesses  (証人) or admit their guilt. Sumutoko advises Japanese nationals in Illinois that in the case of a traffic violation resulting in a mandatory court appearance 「裁判所出廷が必須な場合」there are three options.
  • Plead guilty, pay the fine, and receive a conviction「罪状を認め、提示された罰金額を支払う(記録が残る)」
  • Plead guilty, pay the fine, attend Driver’s School, and avoid a conviction「「罪状を認め、提示された罰金額プラスDriver’s School料を支払い、Driver’s Schoolに行く(記録が抹消される)」
  • Plead not guilty and fight it in court 「罪状を認めず、裁判所で争う」

In most traffic cases, the defendant pleads guilty, which also simplifies the proceedings. Once the defendant pleads guilty and answers questions from the judge, the judge usually takes into consideration both the severity of the offense and decedent’s driving record (運転歴) to determine the fine. (For a minor traffic violation, a judge fined me, but kept that violation off my driving record since I had a spotless record without even a speeding ticket.)

Regardless of the circumstances as the interpreter, you are not allowed to advise the defendant on what to plead or anything else related to the trial. One fundamental aspect of interpreting is that you are not an advocate for the client so the interpreter cannot give any legal advise or an explanation of legal jargon not explained by the other judge, yet without a fundamental understanding of such jargon or proceedings one cannot properly interpret.

Traffic Laws in the USA and Japan

The US has a reputation for being a very litigious country, something that could be a topic all by itself. The Attorney Michiko Ito described the US as 「《契約会社》アメリカ、《起訴ずきの国》アメリカ」”The US: filled with companies for contracts, the US: a country in love with lawsuits” in her book アメリカ駐在員のための法律常識 aimed giving Japanese nationals residing in the USA a general understanding of laws for living and doing business. This can be embodies within Traffic Laws of the USA vs. Japan and which violations can result in a mandatory trial.

As Michiko Ito explains, the US court system is complicated. Most laws are enacted on a state level and even if certain actions are illegal regardless of the location (speeding, DUI, DWI, running a red light or stop sign, not yielding to a bus, not stopping when a police pulls you over), how these rules are enforced and the fines they could incur can be different from state to state. In Illinois, these laws are found in the Illinois Vehicle Code (イリノイ車両法) (625 ILCS 5/), whereas the traffic laws in Japan are centralized and the applicable laws are the Road Traffic Act (道路交通法).

For offenses that result in fines, with or without a trial, both Illinois and Japan has a Driver’s Licence Point System or 運転免許の点数 in which with enough deduction one’s licence can be suspended 免停 or revoked 免許取消.

In Illinois, this is calculated in a one month period and incurring violations from 15 to 44 points results in a 2-month suspension, 45 to 74 points in a 3-month suspension, 75 to 89 points in a 6-month suspension, 90 to 99 points in a 9-month suspension, and 100 or more points in a 12-month suspension. The more infractions one occurs the more likely a judge may order for their licence to be revoked. These infractions range from 5 points for driving 5 miles under the speed limit, 10 points for failing to obey an officer’s orders, 20 points for texting or using a phone while driving, 20 points for not stopping at a stop sign, 5 to 50 points for speeding, depending on the speed, 55 points for reckless driving.

In Japan, it depends on your past offenses. With no prior record, a violation of 6 to 8 points results in a 30 day suspension, 9 to 11 points in a 60 day suspension, and 12 to 14 points in a 90 day suspension. Any points above that and one’s license will be revoked, once that is revoked and the 欠格期間, which is the time period before one can apply for a new license and re-enroll into driving classes, depends on the offense. Three violations will result in immediate license revocation: driving under the influence (飲酒運転), driving without a license (無免許運転), and causing a serious accident (悪質な事故). The Road Traffic act states that:

第六十五条 何人も、酒気を帯びて車両等を運転してはならない。Article 65 (1) It is prohibited for any person to drive a vehicle or streetcar while under the influence of alcohol.
2 何人も、酒気を帯びている者で、前項の規定に違反して車両等を運転することとなるおそれがあるものに対し、車両等を提供してはならない。(2) It is prohibited for any person to provide a vehicle or streetcar to a person under the influence of alcohol who is likely to drive it in violation of the preceding paragraph.
3 何人も、第一項の規定に違反して車両等を運転することとなるおそれがある者に対し、酒類を提供し、又は飲酒をすすめてはならない(3) It is prohibited for any person to provide an alcoholic beverage to or encourage the consumption of alcohol by a person who is likely to drive a vehicle or streetcar in violation of paragraph (1).

There is some overlap in Japanese and Illinois law procedures as driving under the influence is considered a felony not a traffic violation. In the case of Illinois, it will result in up to a $2,500 fine, up to 1 year jail time, and a one year suspension of one’s licence. However it’s important to note the difference in what is considered the legal limit. In Illinois (and most of the USA), a DUI is considered a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or more. Japan is much more strict and a DUI is 0.03% or more, in addition jail time can be up to 3 years with up to a 500,000 Yen fine.

With these two basic systems in place, what offenses result in mandatory traffic court?

In Illinois, the officer at the scene will issue a ticket and will either check the box for “appearance in court required” or “No appearance in court required”. Even for infractions that don’t require a court appearance, it can be contested in court and paying the fine whether it’s a parking ticket or speeding ticket is tantamount to admitting guilt. For certain violations, as part of the separation of powers law enforcement as part of the executive branch needs to delegate these fines to a judge in the judicial branch. Any violations resulting in an accident will lead to mandatory appearance in court, but other possible violations are speeding, reckless driving, bus violation, failure to yield, and disobeying an officer’s orders regardless of the severity of the initial offense. In regards to this final one, the Illinois vehicle codes states,

(625 ILCS 5/11-203) (from Ch. 95 1/2, par. 11-203)
    Sec. 11-203. Obedience to police officers. No person shall willfully fail or refuse to comply with any lawful order or direction of any police officer, fireman, person authorized by a local authority to direct traffic, or school crossing guard invested by law with authority to direct, control, or regulate traffic. Any person convicted of violating this Section is guilty of a petty offense and shall be subject to a mandatory fine of $150.

In Japan, on the other hand, only serious violations result in a trial. The officers have a blue ticket for minor violations and a red ticket for serious violations. For minor traffic violations, if you pay the traffic violation fine (反則金) then the violation will not appear on your criminal record unlike in the USA where it’s recorded in your driving record. Similar to the US if these fees are not paid it will lead to a criminal procedure and another fine. However, if you deny guilt and try to appeal this ticket, it will also result in a criminal procedure. In the case of a very minor violation or one’s first violation, it might not be prosecuted and the initial fine could be waived. However, if the defendant admits guilt during the procedure then they will have to pay a criminal fine (罰金), which will appear on their criminal record. If they deny the validity of the ticket, the defendant may appear in court. Sumikawa’s law office advises against fighting a traffic violation fine as the criminal proceedings and trial will appear on your record.

In the case of major traffic violations, a criminal proceeding is required and if the defendant claims innocence a subsequent trial. Some examples of major crimes are drunk driving, driving while on drugs,  a hit and run, and speeding 50 km over the speeding limit. Japan also has an additional traffic regulation for these sorts of violations when they result in either death or injury, the Act Concerning Punishment of Automobile Driving Resulting in Death or Injury (自動車運転支所行為処罰法).

When it comes to laws and policies, the devil is in the detail and a law on the books is only as powerful as its enforcement. After all, in the same exact road and going the same speed, one person can get fined and another person can get away scot-free.  One person can not notice the officer’s siren going off for a while and once they pull over, get slammed with a mandatory court appearance, but another person may get an officer that’s more understanding and gives them a warning or simply issues them a ticket. There are significantly more minor violations that can lead to a mandatory trial in the USA, although there is overlap in what is considered a severe traffic offense and what may result in a license revocation. The USA is a nation for cars and has limited public transportation so the suspension or revocation of one’s license will have a serious impact on one’s life and can be the difference between being able to go to work or getting groceries and not being able to do so.

Japan does not bring as many traffic violations to court and when it does it’s considered a criminal proceeding, but tends to be settled out of court. It is significantly more difficult to get a driver’s licence in Japan (the driving age is 18 compared to 15 to 16 in the USA) and it is much easier to get it suspended or revoked. Major traffic violations tend to have much harsher penalties in Japan compared to the USA. Furthermore, traffic accidents that result in injury or death are considered an “intentional” crime, which gives the legal groundwork for large criminal fines and longer jail time.

When interpreting in a US court, while Japanese law is not imperative, it is useful to understand the cultural differences to understand the position and thought processes of someone who might not completely familiar with US laws and regulations. Personally, I think exploring comparative law and policy, much like comparative linguistics gives a greater understanding of how different cultures intersect and diverge. For translation or interpreting, one needs to understand both their own culture and their learned culture as well as understand the topic discussed or written about.


*Please stay tuned for this legal translation series for topics on human rights laws, contract laws, family registries, and legal specialization. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments, as well as any other topics in this category that you may be interested in.

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