The death penalty brutalizes everyone connected with it: Judges and juries who pass it down, politicians who turn an evil or a blind eye to it, jailers, executioners, and more than anyone, the person whose life is extinguished by it.
Although capital punishment has been abolished in 93 countries, among the leading democracies only Japan, the United States and Singapore retain it. Even Russia and Israel have banned such state killings.
There are currently 103 people on death row in Japan. Opposition to capital punishment has been meek in this country, but in recent years the movement toward at least a moratorium, if not a ban, has gained some momentum.
Author and film director Tatsuya Mori published a major work on the subject earlier this year. “Shikei (The Death Penalty)” went through five printings in the first half of 2008. Its subtitle is: “People are capable of killing people. But I believe that people desire to save people.”
In this moving and well-researched book, Mori takes us through some of the most gruesome torture instruments invented by man, arguing that execution is the culmination of their efficacy. This is because, historically speaking, these instruments were used to extract “the truth.” In the Middle Ages, testimony not given under torture was considered unreliable. (This may strike a ghoulish chord in some U.S. practices supported by Dick Cheney and George W. Bush in their quest to secure “terrorist” confessions.)
Mori goes into some detail about what happens when a person is hanged. “People don’t breathe their last so easily,” he writes. “In many cases, people die slowly, dangling from their rope.” (In Japan, hanging is the mode of choice.)
Mori is no academic bystander to these issues. He made a documentary for television about the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo and their crimes, and became acquainted with some of the perpetrators. Nonetheless, in no way, it must be emphasized, does he excuse any crime by any criminal.
The cruelty of the death penalty is magnified in Japan by a truly medieval practice. Until the mid-1970s, prison authorities told people on death row when their execution would take place. This led to a number of suicides, and it was subsequently decided to keep the date secret. A sudden knock on the prisoner’s door can now be a death knell. Inmates are informed they will be executed an hour before the ritual begins; and relatives, friends and lawyers are notified ex post facto.
People on death row in their four-tatami-mat cells (approx. 12 sq. meters) in Japan are purposely isolated from other prisoners. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations has pointed out how trying this is on the person. While the Code of Criminal Procedure makes it mandatory that people be executed no later than six months subsequent to sentencing, in practice waiting periods have extended for years, and sometimes, decades.
The thoughts and views of some people on death row were reported in The Japan Times on Oct. 13. Among those awaiting execution for decades is Iwao Hakamada, 72. He was convicted of a murder in 1966 that he insists he did not commit. Confessions are known to have been extracted in this country under extreme duress, with promises of light sentences and even clemency. Yet, it is exceedingly difficult for people who have experienced the injustice of a conviction under such duress to obtain a retrial.
Do loved ones of those who have been murdered find peace of mind when the wrong person is executed for the crime? It is an established fact worldwide that capital punishment does not work as a deterrent. Is this really an acceptable form of private and public vengeance?
The Japanese public has long closed its eyes and ears to this inhumane practice. Their notion has been, “It’s not us who carry this out, it’s the state.”
In recent years, however, Japanese people have gradually been coming around to the idea that sovereignty resides in them, that they are personally responsible for what their nation does. (This process still has a long way to go, and books like Mori’s will encourage it to develop.)
Prison guards have begun to speak out. Toshio Sakamoto, a man who worked for 27 years as a death-row guard around the country has published two books on capital punishment, the major one being “Moto-keimukan ga Akasu Shikei no Subete (Everything You Need to Know about the Death Penalty as Revealed by a Former Jailer)” from Bungei Shunjusha in 2000.
Sakamoto’s views are rather convoluted. He believes that execution itself is “barbaric,” but he has too long been an integral part of the process to condemn “the system” outright. After all, how could he otherwise justify his life’s work? His wish, however, is admirable: “Despise the crime but not the person.”
Although every year of the past 15 has seen an execution, the total figure is not high, an average of fewer than six a year. (This year, however, with 15 executions — the most since the mid-’70s — has seen a rush to the gallows.)
Yet, there is a growing distaste among politicians for this practice. The fact that executions do not take place when the Diet is in session shows that politicians are reticent and hypocritically squeamish: They are quite happy for executions to be carried out — just not “on their watch.”
A few justice ministers have been against capital punishment, and this has led some proponents of the law to claim that a person against it should not take up the job. Nonetheless, Seiken Sugiura, justice minister for 15 months in 2005 and 2006, stated that his Buddhist faith prohibited him from sanctioning capital punishment, and no prisoners were put to death during his tenure.
Hollywood used to adore the character of the prison chaplain who seemingly brought comfort to people about to be executed. Thankfully, this variety of sick-making pseudo-piety is no longer fashionable, though many American states continue to murder people in the name of the Bible and the law.
Any religious figure who participates in this process should be defrocked; any physician, debarred from practicing medicine. Handmaidens of executions have no claim to humaneness.
At the end of October, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations urged Japan to abolish capital punishment, and more than one-third of Japanese people today expect that to happen in the future. This is progress.
Tatsuya Mori writes in “Shikei” what may very well someday become the conventional wisdom in Japan.
“I don’t want to lose hope in people. I do not acknowledge that there are people unworthy of living.”