This paper examines and discusses issues surrounding the current situation regarding capital punishment in Japan, where execution by hanging is still practiced, despite a number of expressed concerns. Japan is in a minority of the world’s countries still exercising the option of capital punishment. According to Rogers (Apr 2013), “there are nearly five times as many countries not executing prisoners as those that do in 2012.” The issue is not simply whether Japan should continue to use the death penalty, but also includes the way it treats prisoners on “Death Row” – those awaiting execution.
Although it is suggested that there is little expression within Japan of public opposition to capital punishment (Ryall, March 2013), if international opinions are taken into account, the balance must surely be heavily in favor of abolishing the death penalty, following the example of many other countries in recent years.
“Capital Punishment Facts” (Apr 2013) provides a summary of arguments for and against the principle of the death penalty, as follows:
- It creates an example for society as a whole;
- Brings comfort to those close to the victim;
- Convicted murders get their just desserts;
- Removes the menaces to society;
- Avoid taxpayers having to pay for the criminal’s upkeep in prison;
- In justice terms it is “more effective” than sentencing to life imprisonment.
- Capital punishment actually costs the taxpayers than life imprisonment;
- Many innocent people have been executed for someone else’s crime;
- Death sentences and the inevitable appeals process clog up the judicial system;
- Capital punishment cannot restore the life of the victim;
- Punishing a killing by killing someone else seems senseless;
- Those sentenced to die may included people with mental illness backgrounds.
The same article stated that there are today only two industrialized nations that currently impose the death penalty: the United States and Japan.
According to Fox (n.d.) discussing the death penalty in Japan, the universal measure of “the sanctity of human rights” in any nation is not using capital punishment. He acknowledged that the death penalty has several positive areas of support, including politicians promoting law and order to secure votes; but insisted that it does not prevent crime – that criminals appear not to be deterred by the risk of being executed. He believed that for this reason, but also because most people believe that life is sacred, the death penalty has been abolished in many countries.
Fox also noted that nations wishing to join the European Union have to have abolished capital punishment, but that some countries like China, Iran and America are “at the other extreme” and that there are more juveniles sentenced to death in the US than anywhere else. In this context, Fox described Japan as “a contradiction in terms” in that it still uses capital punishment – though sparingly – putting to death just a few prisoners a year. He claimed that capital punishment in Japanese society has dual psychological purposes. The first is that it appears to provide the overworked masses with a societal requirement for bad people to be punished, as a sort of counter to the idea that good people will conversely experience good outcomes. Secondly, according to Fox, it provides the police – who have extensive powers of prolonged interrogation of suspects – with the use of the ultimate encouragement to confess, or as Fox put it, “sing or swing.”
However, having made that point, Fox made reference to the unusual procedure for implementing the death penalty. Executions are carried out by hanging, which in itself is not especially unusual. But the period preceding the execution is what distinguishes the Japanese system. Condemned prisoners are held in detention centers for an unspecified period, then executed on a Friday morning, in secret, and without advance warning. To this researcher, that total uncertainty for the prisoner surely must be considered a form of torture. As
Fox put it: “Surviving any Friday past nine a.m. guarantees another week of life.” Also, according to Fox, those prisoners who are executed are never publicly named, and the executions may not be reported until much later. Even the deceased person’s legal representatives and family are not told directly; they discover the person has been executed when the detention center asks for the ashes and/or possessions to be collected. Fox reported a growing movement in Japan campaigning for capital punishment to end, which he believes will happen if the U.S. takes the lead.
Hogg (2007) gave more insight into the way the condemned prisoners are treated in the Japanese detention centers. He reported that the customary procedure of giving the prisoner no advance warning of his execution “is incompatible with articles 2, 7 and 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Human Rights, according to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.”
In addition, Hogg revealed more details of the conditions in those detention centers. He reported for example that the time a prisoner awaits that “last-minute” warning of his impending execution averages almost eight years. (it’s hard to imagine being confined for that length of time knowing that any and every Friday morning could be your last!).
Hogg also stated that the prisoners there are held in solitary confinement in “toilet-sized cells” in which they are not allowed to exercise, and that formal exercise periods are limited to two to three times per week. It is alleged that the oldest of the over 100 inmates currently on this Japanese version of death row is an 86-year old who was sentenced following rape and murder about 40 years ago.
Hogg echoed the opinion expressed in the Introduction to this paper, that there is little public opposition within Japan to capital punishment. He quoted opinion polls suggesting only 6 percent oppose it, although those campaigning to abolish it say this is because few people are aware of the detention center practices and regimes, and that there is also great concern that many convictions are obtained as a consequence of confessions forced from suspects by both the police and the prosecutors.
That concern was also expressed by Kingston (Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan) (May 2013) in his report for the Japan Times. Recounting several instances of wrongful convictions, some in which prisoners were freed years later without apology or compensation, he also noted that no members of the judiciary have yet apologized or been imprisoned for wrongdoings in securing the original convictions. Even worse is the fact that innocent people have been put to death, meaning they had no opportunity for an apology or rectifying the earlier mistakes. Adding to the concern is that Japan “boasts” a 99 percent success rate for convictions. Kingston does not see that success rate as unduly surprising, taking into account that a suspect can be interrogated for as long as 23 days without pause and without charge. That period can then be repeatedly extended, meaning that after unending browbeating, many will eventually sign a confession.
Kingston reported one particular case in 2010 where a woman was detained for 163 days, but steadfastly refused to confess, then was released without charge when it was found that a prosecutor had tampered with evidence and had compelled witnesses to speak against her. Kingston stated that the duration of her interrogation and detention clearly shows the amount of pressure faced by a suspect in the Japanese judicial system.
Kingston also stated that a recent report entitled “Death Penalty in Japan” recommended that Japan introduces widespread reform, eliminating capital punishment for unintended killings, abolishes the detention system currently used and monitors pre-trial detention practices and limits its duration. In the meantime Kingston stated, the report recommended suspending any further executions, a move seconded by the “Japanese Federation of Bar Associations.”
Kingston’s article further commented on Japanese government polls claiming 86 percent support for capital punishment. It seems that the survey framed the questions in such a way that a pro-death penalty bias was unavoidable. A more recent independent survey, asking more neutrally-framed questions, produced a result of only 44 percent definitely in favour of keeping capital punishment. Sato, who conducted that independent survey, also found that misleading government crime figures affected their survey outcomes. When people were presented with accurate statistics, that 44 percent in favor of retaining the death penalty dropped to just 36 percent.
Those misleading government statistics were also mentioned in a report for the Christian Science Monitor by McCurry (May 2013), entitled: “As world dials back death penalty, Japan heads in opposite direction.” The report suggests that Japan is “increasingly out of touch with the rest of the world” having executed prisoners only two months after the new conservative administration came into power. Amnesty International is quoted in the report as deploring the executions and their Asia-pacific director Catherine Baber said: “This chilling news appears to reinforce our fears that the new government is increasing the pace of executions at an alarming rate.” She further stated that the Japanese regime is ignoring international pressure to discuss capital punishment and head towards abolition. It has also ignored a December 2012 UN resolution on the subject, which called for “a moratorium on executions” and more transparency regarding the treatment of the “death row” residents.
Coupling that factor with Japan’s alleged dubious procedures of police interrogations without charge, and the extended browbeating that can cause suspects to fold under pressure and sign “confessions” just to end the interrogation, there is little doubt that it is time for Japan to join the majority of the world’s countries in ending capital punishment.
“Capital Punishment Facts.” (Apr 2013). Blue Hat Know. Web. 5 June 2013.
Fox, M., H. (n.d.). “Among The Activists.” Japan Innocence & Death Penalty Research Center. Web. 5 June 2013.
Hogg, C. (2007). “Secrecy of Japanese executions.” BBC News. Web. 5 June 2013.
Kingston, J. (May 2013). “Death penalty: Systemic failings add to risk of wrongful executions.” The Japan Times. Web. 5 June 2013.
McCurry, J. (May 2013). “As world dials back death penalty, Japan heads in opposite direction.” Christian Science Monitor. Web. 5 June 2013.
Rogers, S. (Apr 2013). “Death penalty statistics, country by country.” The guardian. Web. 5 June 2013.
Ryall, J. (Mar 2013). “Little opposition to death penalty in Japan.” Deutsche Welle. Web. 5 June 2013.