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Japan: Politicians must lead national debate on death penalty

In March, 3 death-row inmates were executed under the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government for the first time in 20 months. Executions took place in the months of August and September as well. The justice ministers who ordered the executions said that it was their duty, and indeed, according to Japan's Code of Criminal Procedure, an execution must take place within 6 months after a death sentence is confirmed.

According to a Cabinet Office survey, over 80 % of the Japanese public supports the death penalty. Meanwhile, as of September 2012, 14 death sentences have been handed down by lay judges since they began hearing potential death penalty cases, but not much information about the sentences has been released.

Through my observation of trials in which the death penalty has been sought, I came to question the wisdom of members of the public deciding whether someone lives or dies while pushing an examination of the concepts of crime and punishment off to the side, but the debate has yet to mature in Japan. In many countries that have abolished the death penalty, political leaders took the helm toward abolition even as public opinion supported the death penalty. For further debate on the issue to take place in Japan, information must first be made public, and political leaders must elicit public discussion.

In August, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations' panel on the abolition of the death penalty passed a resolution to seek the adoption of life imprisonment without parole as an alternative to the death penalty. However, during 2 days of discussion, a series of dissenting views were voiced out of concern that life without parole would shut down all possible paths to social rehabilitation. Ultimately, the various blocs agreed that a strong policy must be established in order to engage in debate on the abolition of the death penalty.

Internationally, the death penalty is seeing a trend toward abolition and suppression. According to the human rights organization Amnesty International, as of September 2012, 140 countries out of 198 countries around the world have either officially abolished the death penalty, or have effectively abolished it by not carrying out any executions in over 10 years. In China, where several thousand are believed to have been executed, the number of crimes subject to the death penalty was reduced last year. In the U.S. as well, the number of death sentences has dropped by half in the past decade. For South Korea, which has not executed any inmates in about 15 years, consideration for diplomatic ties has been a factor in its continued moratorium on executions.

So what sort of alternative systems are being implemented in countries that have abolished the death penalty? According to the Japanese non-profit organization Center for Prisoners' Rights, the Netherlands and the U.S. state of New Jersey have adopted life imprisonment without parole, while Germany and Britain have instituted life sentences with the possibility of parole or a switch to a definite term.

In Germany, which abolished the death penalty in 1949 out of remorse for the abuse of the death penalty during its Nazi years, inmates, as a rule, are paroled after 15 years in prison. In Britain, too, prisoners whose minimum detention periods have been determined as "life" undergo regular evaluations after 25 years, and may become eligible for parole.

How then, have countries that have faced indiscriminate mass killings responded? In Norway, where 77 people were killed in July 2011, Anders Breivik was sentenced to the country's maximum prison sentence of 21 years. If he is considered a threat, it is possible that he will be imprisoned for the rest of his life, but otherwise, many readers may think the sentence too lenient. Apparently, however, there were few calls for the resurrection of the death penalty during the trial.

Knut Storberget, the Norwegian justice minister at the time of the killings, said at a lecture in Japan this past June that what was important was figuring out the backdrop against which the incident took place, and to think of ways to prevent something similar from happening again. He was concerned not with the death penalty, he explained, but with prevention and rehabilitation, and offered that the argument that the death penalty prevents crime could provide an excuse for people not to take any action.

Norway had reduced crime through improvements in welfare services and forgiving policies, he continued, and emphasized that terrorism was not going to change this line of thinking.

Japan, meanwhile, took a turn for a more hard-line approach to crime following the 1995 sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system by the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo. Death sentences for murder charges in lower court rulings have gone up approximately 4 times in the past 20 years. In the case of Norway, there was just 1 perpetrator, while the gas attacks in Tokyo were carried out by a religious organization. The context and culture in which the crimes took place were different, as well, and it is only natural to react to a heinous crime with fear and fury, and hope for a safe society.

However, even if we were to remove one "harmful person" from society, if we do not resolve the fundamental problems of our society, someone else will just cause more harm. Recidivism, domestic homicide, and crimes committed by the elderly are major issues in Japan today, and what we need more than retribution is to address the poverty and isolation in which the crimes take place.

The death penalty does not require the rehabilitation of those awaiting execution, and as such, death row inmates do not participate in the prison industry. Seiken Sugiura, who did not order any executions during his tenure as justice minister in the Koizumi Cabinet, says, "It would be better to adopt something like life imprisonment without parole, and make inmates reflect upon and pay for their crimes through work."

In December, the United Nations General Assembly will vote on a resolution for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty for the 4th time, which Japan has opposed the past 3 times. Japan should not expect to be able to continue avoiding engaging in the abolition debate.

Source: "As I See It" by Hiromi Nagano, Foreign News Department; The Mainichi, November 3, 2012

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