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September 10, 2018

Notable review of Japan's modern administration of its death penalty

This new press piece under the headline "Cruel yet popular punishment: Japan's death penalty" provides an accounting of capital punishment's operation and reception in the only major modern democracy other than the US using it. Here are excerpts:

Years waiting on death row, inmates told their fate just hours before their execution, and guards paid extra to do an "unbearable" job –- Japan's capital punishment system is criticized as cruel and secretive yet remains popular. Unusually for an major industrialised power, capital punishment in Japan enjoys broad public support with few calls for its abolishment.

Inmates are executed not by professionals but by ordinary prison staff who may have been guarding the condemned for months or even years, and who receive extra pay of 20,000 yen each. "It's awful, the body bounces like a 70-kilogram object on a nylon rope," said Toshio Sakamoto, who witnessed noosed inmates plunge to their deaths, and described the process as "unbearable."

Blindfolded convicts, usually those who have killed more than one person, are led to a spot with their feet bound and hands cuffed. Then, a trapdoor opens below. The mechanism is triggered by a button in an adjacent room, pressed simultaneously by several officers, although none is told which button is the "live one" that will cause the prisoner's fall....

Japan is the only major industrialised democracy other than the United States to carry out capital punishment. The system was thrust into the international spotlight in July when the country hanged 13 doomsday cultists but the secretive methods have come under fire for being cruel for criminals, families and guards.

Under law, the death sentence should be carried out six months after confirmed by the top court. In reality however, prisoners languish on death row for many years -- Japan has a total of 110 awaiting execution. "Prisoners are typically only given a few hours' notice before execution, but some may be given no warning at all," said Amnesty International in a recent statement.

"Inmates are kept in isolation suffering the anguish of never knowing when they are going to be put to death -– sometimes for decades," added the pressure group. Families are only informed after the execution, noted Amnesty.

The government cites broad public support as a reason to maintain capital punishment but there is little public debate as the whole process is veiled in secrecy. The authorities have just once allowed a 30-minute media visit inside the glass-walled execution room in the Tokyo Detention House, arguably the best-kept among Japan's seven facilities with gallows.

A 2014 government survey of around 1,800 people showed 80 percent thought capital punishment was "unavoidable", with only one in 10 in favor of abolishing it. But 38 percent thought it should be abolished if Japan introduces life imprisonment without parole -- something the penal code does not currently allow.

One 62-year-old businessman in Tokyo said it would be "insane" to think of scrapping capital punishment. And Mika Koike, a 29-year-old IT engineer, said: "Taking the victims and their families into consideration, I think there is no other clear, absolute way to punish the offenders." Kotaro Yamakami, a 25-year-old politics student, said murderers should pay in kind....

For now, there is no sign that Japan's leaders are pondering any changes. On July 5, the eve of executions of seven Aum cultists, a smiling Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was photographed in a drinking party with fellow politicians, giving the thumbs-up for a collective snapshot with his justice minister who had signed off on the hanging orders.

September 10, 2018 at 09:28 AM | Permalink

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