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A Conversation With the Winners of the Japan 2020 IHL Moot Court Competition: "Down the Rabbit Hole"

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

by Timothy Massie, Mei Kanehara, and Chris Clayton

Photography by the writers and ICRC Japan

Only months after they stepped foot into the field of law, three undergraduate students at the University of Tokyo took first place at the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Moot Court Competition National Round 2020. Hosted annually by the ICRC, the event aims to familiarize students with IHL and its practical application – the cases are modeled from real situations of armed conflict and violence, in addition to involving experienced judges to review students' performances.

Team members Timothy Massie, Mei Kanehara, and Chris Clayton, during the circumstances exacerbated by the pandemic, became well-acquainted with the details of their case. Their efforts can be observed through their substantial results: the team received the Best Council Award, while Mei and Chris also won the Best Mooter prizes.

Once propelled with mere impressions of what "international humanitarian law" could be, their success charts a story of growth. As their mentor, Professor Ai Kihara-Hunt, wrote in a Facebook post: "[Team], you are amazing, absorbing all the new knowledge and information and presenting them in a convincing, logical way, PLUS with a very amicable and supportive team spirit. Your dedication will one day save real people who need protection."

Could you introduce a bit about yourselves to the readers?


I’m currently a second-year PEAK student in the Japan in East Asia Program. I’m Indonesian, but I studied in Singapore before coming to UTokyo in 2019. In my free time, I play my guitar, watch the NFL, and read manga. I’m personally interested in international relations, human rights issues, and, of course, International Humanitarian Law (IHL).


Hi guys! I’m Mei and I’m a second year PEAK student at the University of Tokyo. I grew up in Canada (Vancouver and Montreal) and Jakarta and have been living in Tokyo ever since 2019! My hobbies include going cafe-hopping, spending time with the people I love, and visiting exhibitions. This competition has allowed for me to dip my toes into the realm of IHL and take my interest to the next level.


I’m Chris, and also a second year PEAK student. I was born and raised in Australia, and moved to Tokyo in 2019 to study in the Japan in East Asia program. I love language, watching movies, and always seem to be juggling one too many projects! I also enjoy seeking discomfort and jumping into the deep end of things, like I did with deciding to study IHL and taking part in this Moot Court.

Q: What is the ICRC IHL Moot Court Comp?

Tim: A moot court is basically a mock trial where people can practice their lawyering skills. Participants are given a moot problem, containing a set of facts about an imaginary scenario. In it, a person has allegedly committed a crime, so our job is to either prosecute or defend said person in court. I love to debate and argue, so moot courts are a great opportunity for me to do what I love competitively.

Chris: The heart of this ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) moot court is the field of IHL, which is a branch of public international law that chiefly applies during both international and non-international armed conflicts. Most people are aware of the Geneva Conventions, which in many ways laid the foundation for the field. IHL is quite practical, in the sense that endeavours to balance the two (rather diametrically opposed) principles of military necessity and humanity in the context of real-world conflicts, while also aiming to mitigate unnecessary suffering and establish fair rules for combat.

Q: Why did you choose to join this competition?

Mei: I’ve always had a strong interest in field law but had no idea where to start. After all, I wasn’t a law student, nor did I have many options to take classes pertaining to the given field. When I was first introduced to this competition by a friend of mine, I didn’t think twice. Entering the competition seemed like the prime opportunity for me to dive into my interest and learn the principles of IHL. Little did I know that it’d take me so much further. The nature of the competition was also new to me. I’ve had prior experiences partaking in Model United Nations conferences and debates but had never been set up in a moot court setting. Ultimately, I’d say it was a combination of my curiosity in the field and my interest in oral speech competitions that had led me to participating in this year’s competition.

Chris: For me, participating in this competition was more about putting myself out of my comfort zone. The idea of a law that applies in wartime was alluring – in large part due to the amazing introductory class from our professor Kihara-Hunt – and I was excited at the prospect of giving an impassioned speech defending or prosecuting a war criminal (albeit fictional!), like what I saw in TV shows like Suits! More than that, I became interested because I realized that IHL is fundamentally grounded in helping real people, rather than in purely abstract & theoretical concepts — this alone made me want to learn more.

Tim: In the beginning of the year, I hadn’t even heard of IHL or moot courts. Some of my senpais advertised Prof. Kihara-Hunt’s course on IHL in the Spring semester, and I guess that’s when I got hooked. In class, we were introduced to a lot of different kinds of IHL competitions, but the Moot Court Competition appealed to me the most because of its competitiveness. This competition requires technical knowledge of the law and the ability to debate and argue against other people. I’m always up for a challenge, so I joined this competition for the chance to go against the best law students in Japan while deepening my understanding of IHL at the same time.

Q: Could you elaborate a bit on the preparation and study you undertook for the comp?

Chris: While it might not show by watching the rounds, the competition itself is much more than just giving an oral presentation. Leading up to the event, teams have to dissect the given scenario, and prepare written memorials with comprehensive arguments grounded in a legal basis. This requires a deep dive into IHL, which can be overwhelming at first, but remarkably interesting as one gets accustomed to it!

Tim: We started by going through the moot problem and analyzing the case together. From there, we split ourselves into the Prosecution team and the Defendant team. I was in the Prosecution team and I focused mainly on the topic of attacks against civilians and the use of performance enhancing drugs on soldiers. For the memorials, we looked into various sources of IHL: from international treaties like the Geneva Conventions, to existing cases on those topics under the ICC or other International Tribunals’ jurisdiction. I mainly referred to the IHL textbook published by the ICRC and online databases of international law cases. Then, we used the provisions under those treaties and cases to form our arguments in the memorial. We also did some further research for the oral rounds, but we focused more on preparing for our speech.

Q: What were some challenges that you faced in the process and in the competition itself?

Mei: The preparation required extensive research on other cases, grasping new legal jargon and studying every detail of the case. As a defendant, my main concern had to do with rebuttals. It was necessary that my co-counsel and I prepare an answer for every foreseeable question/argument by our opponent. One of the biggest personal challenges that I faced during the competition took place during the oral speeches. It’s only when I started speaking in front of the podium that I realized how difficult it is to multi-task listening, understanding and providing a convincing response to whatever is thrown your way under all the pressure. For this reason, I know that there is no such thing as enough practice!

Tim: I think the preparation process went really well. The three of us work really well together and we were all proactive in setting up meetings. Chris especially did a great job as the contact person! We missed a few self-imposed deadlines every now and then, but those deadlines were so ahead of the competition’s official deadlines that we had enough time to catch up. For me, the most challenging aspect of the competition must be preparing the speeches for the oral round. I’m not as strong a speaker as Chris and Mei, so I knew I had to work harder. Also, unlike my teammates, I’m not really the type to prepare a script because I want to be more flexible to the judges’ interruptions and questions. In the first few rounds, I chose to go with a slower and more subdued speaking style for clarity, but one of the judges commented I was not energetic enough. I tried to pick up the pace in the final round, but I was so nervous I ended up stuttering so much!


What were the important lessons and memorable parts of the whole moot experience for you?

Mei: I’d like to say that the whole preparatory process and the competition itself has been incredibly gratifying. Learning and working on a realistic case as such has brought forward an insane amount of knowledge that I can confidently say would have not been acquired in any other way. Like I said before, practice makes perfect, but you can never have enough practice, so keep practicing! Know your case inside out, be able to refer to others, pay attention to details and prepare answers to questions. What rendered this moot experience all the more fruitful was truly the fun atmosphere that our team had maintained throughout. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you need a healthy balance. Know when to start your engine and know when to blow off some steam!

Chris: First, the process of working together with Mei and Tim was super fun! It affirmed for me that having supportive friends and teams is so crucial (for not just competitions, but life in general!) Second, I really valued the experience of playing both the prosecutor and defendant roles in the team – we only had 3 members, so one of us had to be the counsel for both sides. Although it was overwhelming at first, by immersing myself in the arguments from both sides I developed more of an appreciation for just how easy it is to be biased towards one side (along with how hard it must be for practicing lawyers to stay objective and not get lost in conjecture!) The work was tough at times, but I think this position allowed me to have a deep understanding of the case overall. I’d say the most memorable part was the oral round itself – I was surprised at how calm I felt when responding to the judges’ questions. It felt incredibly rewarding to realize that I actually understood a part of this field of law, and made me all the more eager to dive further down the IHL rabbit-hole!

What advice would you give to future competitors?

Mei: The one advice I would give to any students considering taking part in the competition is to build a solid team dynamic. Working with Tim and Chris made the preparing process feel so easy and fun though rigorous at times. We were able to build on each other's knowledge and strengths and effectively make use out of them during the competition. Be there to support your team members, whether that means occasionally carrying someone’s workload or taking an extra minute to help the other practice. It truly is a blessing to know that your teammates have your back! Also, find a mindful way to communicate to each other upon understanding varying circumstances. I can assure you this will pay off in stressful times!

Chris: Building off what Mei said, I’d also say to enjoy the process itself! While it’s good to look forward to the day of the competition (and that definitely provides lots of motivation), the most fun parts for me were always our group sessions, where we discussed everything from random legal stuff that we had found interesting in our research, to silly creative arguments for our memorials and speeches.

In terms of preparation, I’d recommend to know your definitions, and know your case law. As a complete law amateur, I soon realized that many legal terms are highly technical and used in very specific ways, so I made sure to search up every word or concept that I didn’t understand — this helped me tremendously in the oral round, when the judges asked me to clarify what I meant by certain words. Similarly, having a firm grasp of the relevant case law for your indictments will go a long way. Reading the entire proceedings of every case will be impossible, but if you can get a general sense of the outcomes and key factors of even just a few cases, your pleading will become orders of magnitude stronger!

How excited are you to represent Japan in the Asia-Pacific Round?

Mei: I am beyond thrilled to be representing Japan in the Asia-Pacific round! Winning the national round can be seen as a preparatory process on top of being a major accomplishment. We are all well aware that the next round will require double the preparation, triple the stamina and quadruple the practice! Nonetheless, I am very much looking forward to working on the next case with my favourite team members and competing against the strongest mooters of Asia!

Chris: I’m truly honoured to be able to represent Japan at the regional round. I can’t deny that I feel quite nervous, but I also can’t wait for the challenge to dissect another scenario and dive further into the complexities of the field of IHL!

Tim: It’s a great honor to represent Japan in the Asia-Pacific Round! I’m really excited to compete with the best of the best in the region. It’s definitely going to be more challenging than the national round, but I think our team is more than capable of doing well. A lot of people have put their trust in us, so we’re going to have to make them proud!

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