Toshio Ogawa is the first justice minister to tacitly support capital punishment since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in September 2009 and has no intention of engaging in the debate over whether to end the death penalty.
He said the study group weighing the possibility of abolishing capital punishment has run out of things to discuss.
“Whether or not the death sentence should be kept had been discussed in depth before the study group was set up (in September 2010 by then Justice Minister Keiko Chiba).
“It has not yielded any new opinions and it is a waste of time to listen to the same opinions,” Ogawa told journalists in his Tokyo office Jan. 23.
“We are done discussing and are now in the midst of compiling opinions, and will make an announcement when everything is compiled,” he said.
Ogawa, who passed the bar in 1970 and served as a judge, prosecutor and lawyer before becoming a lawmaker, was senior vice justice minister for a year to last September in Naoto Kan’s administration.
The study group was never tasked with coming up with proposals. Chiba, who signed the orders for two hangings despite her personal beliefs, established the group because she wanted nationwide discussions on capital punishment.
Ogawa reiterated he feels it is his responsibility as justice minister to sign off on executions.
“I don’t really want to do it, but that is one of the justice minister’s job descriptions. With 130 inmates on death row and public opinion showing 85 percent of Japanese support the death sentence, it is inexcusable not to sign off on executions,” he said.
No hangings have taken place since Chiba, a DPJ member, gave the go-ahead for the two executions in July 2010.
The frequency of executions appears to vary depending on the justice minister at the time. Other than the two inmates sent to the gallows in 2010, seven were hanged in 2009, 15 in 2008, nine in 2007 and four in 2006.
Japan is one of 58 countries, including the United States, China, India and Iran, where executions take place. A total of 104 countries, including all European countries, Canada and Australia, either have abolished the death sentence or have not resorted to its use in years, according to Amnesty International.
Ogawa said he has not ruled out signing off on executions while the Diet is in session. Past justice ministers have generally refrained from having anyone executed during legislative sessions, apparently to avoid coming under fire from fellow lawmakers.
Ogawa said he is neutral on calls for establishing an alternative punishment, such as life in prison with no chance of parole. Some argue this sentence is necessary because the gap in harshness between hanging and life with possible parole is too wide.
“I think it is extremely painful if inmates have no possibility of parole. They may give in to despair. On the other hand, it is better than death,” he said.
On whether to allow shared child custody in cases of divorce, Ogawa effectively said Japan does not need to revise the Civil Code to allow this, because ensuring visitation rights is sufficient.
The Civil Code stipulates that custody, or “parental rights,” over children must belong to one of the parents in a divorce. This provision is one of the reasons foreign or Japanese parents who lose custody have difficulty playing a role in their children’s lives.
“If we allow dual parental rights, it will be difficult to decide which parent the children live with and to make other decisions. I believe a major complaint that people seeking dual parental rights have is that they don’t get to see their children enough. That can be largely solved by ensuring visitation rights,” he said.
Japan is under pressure to revise family laws to ratify the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspect of International Child Abduction, under which countries must return children abducted from another country that has signed the agreement to the country of their original residence.