Japan has had a system of reduced punishment for youths since the eighth century. Currently, the juvenile justice system in Japan only minimally recognizes the rights of youths. Family courts have the discretion to impose indeterminate sentences so that juveniles remain in custody until they are rehabilitated (Yoshinaka 2010).

Japan gradually has transitioned from harsh youth punishments toward reduced sentences. The juvenile prison population has decreased significantly since the 1960s. In 1960, there were more than 1,000 youths admitted to juvenile prisons. Within a decade, the youth prison population decreased nearly 90 percent. In 2008, family courts admitted only 63 youths to the seven juvenile prisons in Japan (White paper on crime 2009).

In the 1990s, family court judges increased probation and suspended sentence orders and dismissed many cases involving low-level youth offenders. Judges rarely ordered custodial sentences even for repeat or serious offending juveniles and dismissed 40 percent of all cases involving youths (Fenwich 2006).

Although Japan has shifted away from juvenile imprisonment, family courts have several other residential placement options for youth offenders. Family court judges can send youth delinquents to juvenile detention and classification homes. Juveniles can only remain there for four weeks, and while in detention, behavioral specialists monitor their behavior. In 1993, there were nearly 15,000 youths in 52 juvenile detention and classification homes across Japan (Yokoyama 1997).

Family court judges also can place juveniles in child welfare facilities, which house dependent youths and those in need of special attention. Another placement option is juvenile training schools, which provide education, vocational training, and rehabilitation services. Stays in a training school can last between four months and two years (Yokoyama 1997). In 2008, there were nearly 4,000 youths in juvenile training schools (White paper on crime 2009). The small number of youths in juvenile prisons obscures the high number of youths in other residential placements.

In the last decade, reforms enhanced the punitive nature of Japanese juvenile justice. Prosecutors have the discretion to refer serious youth offenders as young as 14 for criminal prosecution and murder suspects between age 16 and 20 automatically face a criminal trial (Fenwick 2006). Although the reforms consider the best interests of victims and community safety, they likely will increase youth imprisonment in Japan.