Japan is less than two years away from making a fundamental change in its legal system, by allowing jury trials.  Under the new system, average citizens will work alongside judges to issue verdicts in many criminal cases. As Yuriko Nagano reports from Tokyo, the greatest hurdle to the experiment is expected to be persuading Japanese citizens to participate.

In Japan, as in most Asian countries, judges alone make decisions in trials. But starting in 2009, juries will be participating in Japanese courts, under what is called a "saibanin" system.

The new system has not yet been confirmed. At first, it will be tested for three years. And it will be limited in scope. Juries will only be used in certain criminal cases, involving serious crimes such as murder.

Robert Precht, a U.S. defense lawyer and legal scholar at the University of Montana, is helping Japanese judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and citizens to implement the change. He spoke to journalists in Tokyo on Thursday.

"The saibanin system and these other reforms are intended to transform Japanese citizens from viewing themselves as governed objects into governing objects," Precht says.

For each trial, there will be a panel of three judges and six jurors, who will be citizens selected at random.

The jury panel will sit in the same room with the judges to deliberate on the evidence and reach a verdict.  If the verdict is guilty, the jurors will also vote on the sentence, and their votes will be equal to those of the judges.

The aim, Precht says, is to bring more transparency to the legal process.

Japan is already testing a pre-trial system, which determines which evidence can be admitted in a trial.  The new system was used in the highly publicized recent trial of Horie Takafumi, former chief executive officer of the Internet company Livedoor. Judges issued a conviction in Takafumi's stock manipulation trial in about a year.

Typically, Japanese trials can take years. Experts hope the new reforms will speed them up.

Another change to the system will have witnesses take the stand in trials, where attorneys can question them in front of the jury. Currently, all testimony is written, and then given to the judges.

Japan did use a jury system between 1928 and 1943, but switched to the judges-only process after that. 

The greatest hurdle, experts say, will be persuading jurors to express their opinions, and even argue with judges.  In Japanese culture, ordinary citizens are generally reluctant to directly question or challenge professionals, such as judges or doctors.