Former Justice Minister Hideo Hiraoka said it is regrettable that Japan resumed executing death-row inmates in March without holding sufficient debate following a 20-month hiatus.
“I regret that executions took place last month without being examined or discussed . . . regarding the way in which the death penalty is enforced and death-row inmates are treated in Japan,” said Hiraoka, who was justice minister for four months until January, told a symposium last week hosted by the Delegation of the European Union to Japan and the EU Institute in Japan at Waseda University in Tokyo.
Three death-row inmates were hanged March 29 by order of his successor and current Justice Minister Toshio Ogawa. They were the first executions since July 2010, when then Justice Minister Keiko Chiba approved two hangings.
Chiba, once considered an death penalty opponent, witnessed the executions and later opened the execution chamber to the media for the first time ever in a rare bid to stir public debate on capital punishment. A study panel on the issue was eventually set up in the Justice Ministry.
But on March 9, 20 days before executions resumed, Ogawa decided to discontinue the debates on the grounds that the main arguments for and against the death penalty had by and large been identified.
“I am very disappointed that the situation regarding the death penalty system has returned to how it was before the study group was established,” said Hiraoka, who refrained from executions during his stint.
Japan is bucking the international trend, since 141 countries have already abolished the death penalty by law or in practice versus 57 that still use it.
Japan “is becoming increasingly isolated,” Hiraoka said.
“We Japanese need to start a national debate on the death penalty, keeping international trends in mind,” he said. “I believe such a debate is essential for pursuing the way our society should be, and also in realizing our constitutional ideal ‘to secure an honorable position in the international community.’ “
The Democratic Party of Japan made Chiba its first justice minister when it took power in 2009.
The DPJ stated in its Policy Index of 2009 that it was ready to open a public debate on the issues surrounding the death penalty, including the temporary suspension of executions.
But Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, the DPJ’s third prime minister, said following the executions last month that he has no plans to do away with capital punishment. Noda assumed office last September.
The Japan Federation of Bar Associations adopted a declaration last year in which it called on the government to immediately launch a public debate on abolishing the death penalty and to suspend executions while the discussions are ongoing.
JFBA Secretary General Yuichi Kaido said at the symposium that the lawyers’ group might step forward to propose abolishing capital punishment after holding an intense in-house debate.
He also said the JFBA is working to introduce a change in the judicial system requiring that death sentences be delivered unanimously to be valid in lay judge trials.
Lay judge trials involve three professional judges and six citizen judges. Under the current system, verdicts are based on what are called conditional majorities, meaning an overall majority that must include at least one professional judge.
“It is incredible that a death sentence can be delivered by a majority vote of 5-to-4,” Kaido said.
Also among the speakers at the event was Seiken Sugiura, who served as justice minister from 2005 to 2006 under the government of the Liberal Democratic Party and did not issue execution orders during his 11-month tenure.
“I believe that the death penalty will eventually be abolished in Japan because it is a democratic country ruled by law, and people’s awareness of human rights is definitely not low,” Sugiura said.