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Japan hanged prisoners days after lawyers’ call for death penalty review

Gallows at Tokyo Detention Center
Gallows at Tokyo Detention Center
The executions of two death row inmates on Friday was a blow to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, which only last week reiterated a call for a moratorium on hangings and for a national debate on the matter.

In a position paper released on Dec. 9, the lawyers’ body urged the Justice Ministry to set up a panel to review Japan’s adherence to an “inhumane” punishment.

On Friday, the JFBA condemned the executions that day of convicted murderers Sumitoshi Tsuda, 63, and Kazuyuki Wakabayashi, 39.

“We strongly protest the latest round of executions,” it said in a statement. “We demand that the government disclose more information regarding the death penalty and start a public discussion on the abolition of capital punishment.”

In its report last week, the JFBA said 140 nations had abolished capital punishment as of the end of 2014, many of them against public opinion. It said Japan’s political leaders should grasp the initiative and not hide behind opinion-survey figures purporting to show greater than 80% support for the policy.

“Examples in other countries show that it is political leadership, not the results of public opinion surveys, that has led to their decision to maintain or abolish the death penalty,” the document said.

It said Britain, France and the Philippines abolished the measure while public support was measured to be 81, 62 and 80 percent, respectively.

South Korea placed a moratorium on the death penalty at a time when 66 percent of the public supported it, the paper said, citing national records and academic studies.

This spring, a pair of researchers concluded that Japan adheres to the death penalty because the government has not tried to gauge public opinion fully, devising questions in opinion surveys that steer replies toward retentionism.

The researchers conducted a survey of their own and found that fewer than 1 in 3 Japanese are committed retentionists.

“Were the government to change its stance on the death penalty, there is reliable evidence that its citizens would follow suit,” wrote the researchers, Paul Bacon of Tokyo’s Waseda University and Mai Sato of Britain’s University of Reading.

They said one factor illustrating the lack of understanding on the issue was that only 51 percent of people surveyed knew that prisoners die by hanging.

This lack of understanding fueled a “public indifference” toward the death penalty, said legal scholar Kana Sasakura of Konan University in Kobe.

“More information on the death penalty should be disclosed to the public, including how the sentences are handed down, how death row inmates are treated, and how they are executed,” she said. Sasakura added, the nation needed greater awareness of global trends and alternative punishments.

Abolitionists say Japan is behind the curve internationally. Fiji, Madagascar and Mongolia are among nations that have struck it from the statute books this year, and even in the United States figures show the trend is toward incarceration rather than execution.

Moreover, they note that the punishment may stand on shaky legal grounds. In 1948, the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of the death penalty. It passed scrutiny, but four of the judges wrote that it “has not been permanently endorsed by the Constitution.” They added, when Japan develops a “peaceful society,” the penalty would probably be phased out.

Source: Japan Times, Alastair Wanklyn, December 18, 2015

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