Nelisa Asato (University of Southern California, USA)
Daniel Dolan's article entitled "Should Japan Kill the Death Penalty" brings attention to the negative attention that Japan has received for its continued practice of the death penalty. Dolan informs us that the United Nations' Committee Against Torture and Amnesty International (AI), as well as the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA) all express their desire to put an end to Japan's current system of capital punishment. Dolan, in agreement with some of the statements issued by groups against Japan's use of the death penalty, informs us about the secrecy that Japan uses when opting for the death penalty and makes us question if justice can truly be served under such practices.
My first point is in agreement with Dolan. It is important to question the secrecy that the Japanese government uses in dealing with the death penalty, as well as other questionable practices employed that play a role in determining if the convicted is given such a sentence. It is important to make sure that if the death penalty is used, it is done when absolutely appropriate. My second point, however, disagrees with Dolan's conclusion. Although it is true that many countries have abolished the death penalty, I do not believe that Japan should or will give into abolitionist pressures simply because other countries have done so.
Japan's death penalty practice is cloaked in secrecy, which is one of the main concerns expressed by Amnesty International, the UN Human Rights Committee, and the JFBA. Once sentenced to death, the inmate, as well as immediate family members, and legal councilors are not informed of the date of execution. Only the authorities know when an execution will take place. Japanese authorities are quick to defend this practice by arguing that informing a prisoner of his execution date will disrupt his mental state, and that their policy of secrecy provides the families of the convicted with privacy and protects them from shame of having it known that a member of their family was sentenced to death for such an unforgivable crime (Amnesty International, 2006). The UN Special Rapporteur states that "refusing to provide convicted persons and family members advance notice of the date and time of execution is a clear human rights violation" (Amnesty International, 2006). Thus prisoners on the death row (and their families) are forced to live in fear that each day will be their last. If the prisoners and their families do not wish to keep the execution a secret, the entire premise of the policy of secrecy is undermined. Furthermore, the executions usually take place when the Diet is in recess and therefore cannot debate the issuance of the death penalty. This secretive practice seriously questions if justice is truly served to these prisoners.
Perhaps more important, is the manner in which evidence is collected against the convicted. Considerable weight is given to statements taken during the investigational stages, rather than on in-court testimony. Reliance on pre-trial confessions has led to many false convictions. Between 1983 and 1990, five inmates were declared falsely convicted and released, four were on death row. Such acquittals are extremely rare. It took 28 to 34 years before the inmates on death row were found innocent. The inmates on death row were tortured and confessions were coerced. According to former Supreme Court Justice Shigemitsu Dando, "there is a high possibility that some [death row prisoners] were executed in spite of being innocent. I am afraid that the total number of such cases in the past has not been small" (Human Rights Features, 2003). Perhaps the United Nations and Amnesty International should focus on how the courts arrive at their decision to sentence convicted criminals to death too, as it appears that highly questionable methods of interrogation have been employed.
Japan continues to utilize capital punishment because many of the Japanese citizens support its usage. A survey conducted by the government in 1999 found that 79.3 percent of the public backs the death penalty. Letters from citizens published in the Japanese press also show public sentiment favors it. As one man named Hajime Ishi wrote to the Yomiuri Shimbun in July 2003, "Controversial as my opinion may be, I would like to see all murderers- regardless of their age, gender, and nationality- put to death" (Lane, 2005). To encourage a judge to sentence a convicted criminal to death, a Tokyo prosecutor presented a petition signed by 76,000 people who supported the impending decision (Lane, 2005). When it comes to capital punishment, the Japanese government's actions are in line with the majority opinion.
To imply that Japan should abolish capital punishment simply because other countries have done so seems to undermine the Japanese right to self-rule. As Takasaki Hideo, a senior official in the Ministry of Justice's Criminal Affairs Bureau states, "We believe that the decision whether to keep or abolish the death penalty should be the decision of each individual country, and should be based on the public sentiment of each country, and the crime situation in each country" (Lane, 2005). It also casts the Japanese in an unfairly unflattering light. Other countries that have abolished the death penalty, such as Poland did in 1997, did so in order to meet the requirements to join the European Union, not because they felt that it was inhumane. Japan has no incentive to abolish the death penalty and as a consequence, has not. The same holds true for the United States. If the Japanese government abolishes its use of capital punishment, it will be because it is in the best interests of Japan and the Japanese people.
Japan's use of the death penalty has come under scrutiny because groups like Amnesty International and the UN have called portions of its practices "inhumane." The Japanese government has been quick to defend its policies stating that such decisions should be left up to the individual sovereign governments. The Diet should consider bills supported by the JFBA calling for a three-year moratorium on executions and a top-to- bottom review of the capital punishment system to ensure that the practices employed are in fact fair. Hirayama Seigoh, President of the JFBA, submitted recommendations to the Diet to delay executions "so that the issue of whether to retain or abolish the capital punishment might be discussed thoroughly and extensively by the people and necessary improvement or reforms might be made on it" and also called for the government "to openly disclose the information on the death penalty system" (JFBA, 2007). If the Diet mandates that information regarding the death penalty system be made public, the Japanese sentiment may change. With a more informed public and a legislature taking measures to ensure fairness in their system, perhaps the system may be reworked to reflect the Japanese public's wishes and meet UN and Amnesty International standards of human rights at the same time.
Amnesty International. "Will This Day be my Last? The Death Penalty in Japan." 7 July 2006. 12 June 2007.
Dolan, Daniel. "Should Japan Kill the Death Penalty?" 31 May 2007. 5 June 2007.
Hirayama, Seigoh. "Japan Federation of Bar Associations Statement on Executions of Death Penalty." 27 April 2007. 10 June 2007.
Human Rights Features (Voice of the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Network). "Japan Hanging on to Death Penalty." 23 April 2003. 12 June 2007.
Lane, Charles. "Why Japan Still has the Death Penalty." Washington Post. 23 April 2003. Page B01. 10 June 2007.