Toru Hanai/Reuters/File
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends an upper house budget committee session at the parliament in Tokyo in February. Abe has expressed strong support for the death penalty and says the public backs him.

As world dials back death penalty, Japan heads in opposite direction

Two gangsters were hanged in Japan last week. More executions are likely under new Prime Minister Abe, who has expressed strong support for the death penalty – and says the public backs him.

Few Japanese are likely to have mourned the deaths of Katsuji Hamasaki and Yoshihide Miyagi. In 2005, the two members of the gangster underworld conspired to shoot dead two rivals in a restaurant, jeopardizing the safety of bystanders. The men hanged for their crimes in Tokyo last Friday, as Japan conducted its fourth and fifth executions of the year.

Newspapers announced the demise of the hardened gangsters, sent to the gallows for their “heinous and brutal” crimes. But human rights groups have voiced concern that Japan’s renewed enthusiasm for the death penalty is leaving it increasingly out of touch with the rest of the world.

The conservative administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been in office only two months before his justice minister, Sadakazu Tanigaki, ordered the executions of prisoners, including the killer of a 7-year-old girl, in February.

After the most recent hangings, Mr. Tanigaki cited clear public support for capital punishment and said he would not hesitate to sign more execution orders.

"It was an extremely vicious and cruel crime, and carried the risk of involving ordinary people," he told reporters. "And many people in Japan say we need [the death penalty].”

Attacks feed support

Public support for the death penalty hardened after a series of high-profile crimes that forced Japanese to question their country's reputation for safety. The March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, in which 13 people died, was a rare incident of indiscriminate mass murder, and left a nation traumatized. Similarly shocking crimes were to follow: in 1998, four people died and dozens were made ill in Wakayama after a housewife laced curry with arsenic at a local festival; and in 2001, a man burst into an elementary school in Osaka and fatally knifed eight pupils to death. 

Last week's executions drew criticism from Amnesty International, which noted a “chilling” escalation in the use of the death penalty since Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party [LDP] returned to power in December last year. (Japan has company in that regard. Read the Monitor's report on Amnesty International's global findings.)

“This chilling news appears to reinforce our fears that the new government is increasing the pace of executions at an alarming rate,” Catherine Baber, the organization’s Asia Pacific director, said in a statement.

“With five executions already this year, it seems clear the government has no intention of heeding international calls to start a genuine and open public debate on the death penalty, including its abolition.”

In executing its most wicked killers, Japan is further isolating itself internationally. It is one of 58 countries, including the US, China, and Iran, that retain capital punishment, while more than 140 other countries, including all members of the European Union, have abolished it in law or practice.

Last week’s executions mean there are now 134 inmates on death row in Japan, the highest number since records began in 1949.

But campaigners say they fear that a slew of executions is imminent, as Abe attempts to shore up public support before crucial upper house elections in July.

Victory for the LDP would give it control of both houses of Japan’s Diet, or parliament, ending years of political deadlock.

“We’re very worried that these recent executions could open the floodgates to even more in the near future,” says Hideki Wakabayashi, executive director of Amnesty International Japan. “I believe there will be at least one more hanging before the elections.”

Japan’s previous government, led by the left-of-center Democratic Party of Japan [DPJ], had raised hopes that it was moving towards abolition – a trend seen in other parts of the world, including in a growing number of US states.

No one was sent to the gallows under DPJ rule in 2011, the first time a year had passed without a single hanging for 19 years. But after an 18-month hiatus, executions resumed in March 2012.

“What we need now is a national debate, and to look sensibly at the pros and cons,” Mr. Wakabayashi says. “At the moment, the debate is media-driven and too emotional. We need to remind people that two-thirds of the world’s countries have abolished the death penalty. Even the United States is moving in that direction.”

Tokyo, though, appears oblivious to the global trend toward abolition, ignoring a UN resolution adopted last December calling on it and other countries to impose a moratorium on executions and make the handling of death row inmates more transparent.

Typically, Japan’s condemned prisoners are given only a few hours’ notice of their execution; their relatives and lawyers are informed only after it has been carried out.

Some question depth of public support 

Despite international criticism, a government opinion poll conducted in 2009 showed support for the death penalty at 86 percent. Campaigners say the poll is misleading, since it includes the 34 percent of respondents who nominally support capital punishment but would like to see it abolished under certain conditions.

The government can always point in support of its stance to Shoko Asahara, the leader of the doomsday cult that carried out the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo.

Death-penalty opponents believe that Mr. Asahara, now on death row, could soon be put to death. “Parts of the media have been calling for Asahara to be executed as soon as possible,” says Yoshihiro Yasuda, a former lawyer for the cult guru and a member of the abolitionist group Forum 90, said recently.

“I believe that there is a great risk that [Justice minister] Mr. Tanigaki will respond to that by implementing the death penalty. Many people say that his political status will rise if he goes ahead and signs the execution order.”

Abe’s record on executions during his first stint as prime minister lends weight to speculation that Japan’s executioners will be called upon again this year: During his year in office from September 2006, 10 people were put to death.

“Mr. Abe says he wants Japan to play a bigger role in the international community as a member of the G8, but he still insists that capital punishment is a strictly domestic issue,” Amnesty's Wakabayashi says. “That said, the fact that he and Tanigaki have to keep saying this shows that there is some anxiety within the government about international opinion.”

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