From Beginners to Winners: UTokyo Students' Experiences in Japan's 2021 IHL Moot Court Competition

Updated: Sep 1

A team of three undergraduate students—Yuna Naoi, Jenna Stallard and Himena Miyashita—came in first place at the Japan National Round of the 2021 ICRC International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Moot Court Competition.

(Left to Right) Student Mentor Timothy Massie, Yuna Naoi, Jenna Stallard,

Himena Miyashita and Prof. Ai Kihara-Hunt. (ICRC Japan)


The competition took place over two days, with the general rounds held online in November 2021, and the finals conducted in-person a month later. Despite the short duration of the competition, preparations spanned several months. For the team, preparations began in August, when they were introduced to the field of IHL as well as what the competition would entail. Indeed, none of the members was familiar with IHL when the team was formed. Jenna and Himena are both PEAK (Programs in English at Komaba) students studying liberal arts; Yuna, while being a law student, had only just entered the university in April and had not yet taken any courses on IHL.


After being thrust into the world of IHL, the team began untangling the moot problema set of facts regarding a fictional armed conflict, during which war crimes are said to be committed by a person. As part of the competition, the team needed to write two 4,000-word memorials. These memorials contained arguments supported by case law from international tribunals as well as articles from international treaties to prosecute or defend the said person in the moot problem. After submitting the memorials, the team then had to prepare for the oral rounds, during which these arguments would be presented orally before a panel of judges in a mock court session.


Final round of the competition held at Waseda University. (ICRC Japan)


Could you introduce a bit about yourselves to the readers?

Yuna Naoi: I am a first year student in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and planning to go to the Faculty of Law. I’ve grown up in Japan my whole life and received Japanese education. My interests include International Politics and Law in general. I am a member of the Kawahito seminar and also the Takayama seminar at my university. Outside of academics, I enjoy hiking, skiing and swimming in the sea, as well as playing the guitar and singing.


Jenna Stallard: I am in my second year studying in the PEAK program at the University of Tokyo. I’m from New Zealand, but I finished my last two years of high school at the Mahindra United World College of India. In the PEAK program, I study the Japan in East Asia stream, which includes history, literature and international relations. Outside of my classes I’m involved in the UTokyo Sustainable Network and in WomEnpowered International.


Himena Miyashita: I am currently a second-year undergraduate student in the PEAK program, studying in the Japan in East Asia stream. I am Singaporean-Japanese and mostly grew up in Singapore before moving back to Japan to complete my high school education at an international school. On top of participating in the moot court competition, I also took part in the IHL roleplay competition, which was also organized by ICRC Japan. The competitions have allowed me to gain an interest in international law, which I hope to study further as I continue my university education. I am also interested in international relations, languages, and literature. Outside of academics, I enjoy music and sports—I play the violin and piano, and am currently a member of the university’s figure skating club!

Why did you choose to join this competition?


Yuna: I joined a seminar class on “war and intervention” and the professor introduced me to a series of lectures on International Humanitarian Law by Professor Kihara-Hunt. Since I had been interested in international conflict and international law, I was very interested in this competition in which I would learn the practice of such laws. So I instantly decided to join it, though I did not actually understand much about IHL and the moot court competition!


Jenna: I didn’t actually know much about the competition when I decided to join— I didn’t know at all what I was getting myself into! I thought that international humanitarian law sounded interesting and I love to give new things a try. Luckily for me, I really ended up really enjoying the competition.


Himena: I attended an IHL seminar series by Prof. Kihara-Hunt prior to the competition, during which I learnt about the basics of IHL. The seminars were incredibly eye-opening. I had learnt extensively about the atrocities of war, but never knew that laws that specifically stipulate what can or cannot be done during armed conflicts existed. I had always assumed that civilians were at the mercy of combatants during such conflicts. I thus felt a great appreciation for IHL and wanted to know more about such laws in detail, as well as how such laws were actually applied. This, along with how fun studying the field of IHL simply was, drove me to take part in the competition!

What were some challenges that you faced in the preparation process and during the competition itself?


Yuna: Since I am not a native speaker of English, doing everything in my second language was a big challenge for me. Using English and understanding the difficult content like laws or cases at the same time seemed overwhelming in the beginning. Also, I struggled with my lack of knowledge about law in general. Though I am hoping to learn law, I only had a small knowledge of law as a first-year student, so it required time and effort for me to understand the whole picture of the law and practices that I was handling. However, all of these were quite stimulating experiences which I would never get in other places of the university, so I am very pleased that I had a chance to learn so much.


Jenna: The biggest challenge for me was being comfortable with knowing that I couldn’t be fully prepared. No matter how much research you do, you can’t tell what the judges will question you on. I had to learn to be comfortable with that and be able to deal with unexpected questions on the spot. Another challenge was getting my head around how to do research. For example, I wasn’t sure how to find information in court documents, which are hundreds of pages long, or how to find an appropriate case to cite. With so much practice I now feel a lot more confident in researching.


Himena: Not being a law student meant that I had to learn everything from scratch, and thus throughout the process there were many times I felt clueless and confused about what I was supposed to be doing. The competition is also targeted toward law students, meaning that students from other teams may have had a head start when preparing for the competition. Nonetheless, our team was fortunate to have the immense support of Prof. Kihara-Hunt and our two mentors Timothy Massie and Chris Clayton, who competed in last year’s competition. We would not have gotten the results we did without them!

What were some of your important takeaways and memorable parts of the whole moot experience for you?


Yuna: The oral pleadings were very memorable. Though the general round was online, I felt like I was a lawyer at the International Criminal Court. Also, the preparation experiences, like editing the memorial document till the last minute, searching for cases endlessly and practising pleadings late at night, were so tough but really exciting and enjoyable with great teammates.


Jenna: The days of oral pleadings are probably most memorable, given how intense and frantic they can be— months of preparation come down to twenty minutes in front of the judges. One of my takeaways would be that the time waiting to speak to the judges is more nerve-wracking than actually doing the pleading. While you’re talking, you’re too focused on engaging with your arguments and the judges to feel that stressed.


Himena: There were many memorable parts to the whole moot experience. Rushing to write the memorials and to find cases till seconds before the oral rounds was definitely an unforgettable experience. A key takeaway here would be that time management and trying to start every step of the process early is crucial to avoid frantic last-minute work. At the same time, you can never be too prepared for the moot competition, and last-minute case finding is quite natural. The important lesson then is to be adaptable and open to new ideas and suggestions at all times! Another memorable instance was during the final round, when one of the judges was adamant about a certain point and asked me the same question multiple times despite my efforts to answer them. Although I was slightly disappointed that I was unable to satisfactorily answer these questions, our team was told later by the judges that they were impressed with our ability to appear confident in our arguments at all times. It is thus very important to practice looking confident, and to also actually be confident when trying to convince someone of your argument, be it during the moot competition or in other circumstances!

Were there any significant differences between the online and in-person rounds?


Yuna: The in-person rounds were much more serious because I felt how the judges paid so much attention to the oralists. It felt like an actual court scene.


Jenna: I enjoyed the in-person rounds a lot more! Being able to make eye contact with the judges and build a connection with them in that space during your pleading makes arguing a lot easier. You can also gauge the judge’s reactions much better in person too.


Himena: Personally, the nervousness I felt in the online and in-person rounds was the same. However, I really enjoyed the in-person rounds, firstly because I did not have to worry about any sudden technical issues interrupting our pleadings, and secondly because it was much easier to strike up a conversation with the judges and other competitors after the rounds. If you enjoy public speaking, the in-person rounds would also be more fun because you would have to pay attention to your body language, establish proper eye contact with the judges, and project your voice—aspects that are not as crucial in online pleadings. In-person rounds also had larger audiences, which was both exciting and nerve-wracking for me.

How has the competition changed you?


Yuna: I think I now have a different vision of my future career. Since the moot court competition is very much like the actual practices of international tribunals, I got a clear image of how international lawyers are working. I now see the lawyer I performed as as a big option for my career.


Jenna: I’m now aware of a whole different world of international humanitarian law.


Himena: Since moot problems are modeled on actual armed conflicts that have taken place, by analysing the problems deeply and reading up on case law, my understanding of real-world conflicts and the relevant laws has definitely become deeper. Taking part in the oral pleadings has also increased my ability to think on my feet and respond to questions from judges quickly while articulating my arguments coherently. The competition has thus really increased my confidence in public speaking.


What advice would you give to future competitors?


Yuna: I would suggest to future competitors, especially non-native English speakers and competitors new to this kind of moot court, to be confident. No bachelor's student should have lots of experience in prosecuting or defending a war criminal at the international court from the beginning! It is quite natural that you don’t know how to handle it. Therefore, do not hesitate to ask for help from your teammates or coaches, and do not lose confidence. Then, I think you can get through the hard time of your preparation and the intense competition.


Jenna: I think making sure that you are all supporting each other in the team is really important. The competition can get intense and it’s important that you can be there for each other so that the competition is fun! On a more practical note, making sure you know your case law and spending the time to be familiar with it is important.


Himena: As previous competitors have shared in other interviews, it is very important to have strong teamwork and to support your teammates both in terms of constructing arguments for the competition, and also emotionally. The entire process of the competition is challenging, requires lots of time and effort, and can be daunting at times, but great teammates can double the fun! I think in all, just enjoy the process and have fun learning about IHL—after all, that is the main objective of the competition!


 

For placing first in the national round, the team will be representing Japan in the Asia-Pacific Round of the same competition, which is set to take place online in March 2022.


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