Japanese may not be as enthusiastic about death row inmates being sent to the gallows as previously believed.
A recent study by researchers shows public support for the death penalty in Japan is not deeply entrenched, despite a government survey indicating more than 80 percent accept the practice.
While Japan has cited the outcome of the survey to support its continuation of capital punishment amid a global trend to abolish it, Mai Sato, a lecturer of the University of Reading in Britain, said, “The majority of the public is in favor of the death penalty if asked in general, but how strongly or how unconditionally they want to retain it is a different matter.
“Our research indicates behind the supposed majority support lies a minority of respondents who are really committed to keeping the death penalty,” she said in recent interview.
Sato, together with Paul Bacon, an associate professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, conducted a survey on the death penalty from February to March, shortly after the Cabinet Office carried out its own poll about the issue last November.
Between the two surveys, no inmates were hanged, while no heinous crimes were reported, which means there were no significant factors to influence the public view of capital punishment during the three-month period, making it possible to meaningfully compare their results.
The two surveys similarly asked respondents if they thought the death penalty was unavoidable or if they thought it should be abolished. Both found a similar tendency: around 80 percent had a favorable attitude toward capital punishment.
Additionally, the researchers gave the respondents five options in their own poll to examine the how committed respondents were to the death penalty: whether capital punishment should definitely be kept, probably be kept, probably be abolished, definitely be abolished or cannot say.
The survey found respondents who chose the first option accounted for only 27 percent.
The researchers also closely examined the 2014 Cabinet Office survey data to find only 34 percent of respondents were staunchly in favor of the death penalty and would never approve its abolition.
“Headlines of the government survey’s reports say ’80 percent support death penalty,’ but our close study shows staunch supporters are the minority, standing at around 30 percent,” Sato said. “It is doubtful, given such an outcome, if the government has a sufficient rationale for executing inmates.”
The researchers’ survey also showed 71 percent of respondents who wanted to retain the death penalty said they would accept the abolition of capital punishment, if the government took the initiative to end the practice.
“The outcome suggests a rather smooth road to abolition if the government exercises policy initiatives,” said Sato, who was working at the Center for Criminology at the University of Oxford at the time of the survey. “We could say Japanese people possess the capacity and flexibility to embrace abolition.”
The researchers’ survey results also showed skepticism about whether introducing life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, alongside the death penalty, would ultimately lead to capital punishment being abolished.
It found only 12 percent of those who wanted to retain the death penalty would accept life imprisonment without parole as an ultimate punishment.
“The majority of them consider the death penalty to be irreplaceable by life imprisonment without parole, and support the death penalty for the very reason that it is an ultimate form of atonement,” Sato said.
The researchers also asked several questions to test the respondents’ level of knowledge on the issue, given the government discloses little information about executions and it is still unknown how prisoners are chosen for the gallows or the cost of an execution.
One of the questions was the method of execution used in Japan, with respondents given options including lethal injection, gas and electric chair. Only 51 percent selected the correct answer — hanging.
“The fact that only half of the respondents knew about the more than 140-year-old, only execution method in Japan highlights the secrecy surrounding the death penalty,” Sato said.
She also suggested it was paradoxical that while the government justified the death penalty based on public support, it did not provide people with sufficient information for making their decisions.
She concluded, “Japan has the death penalty not because the general public is clamoring for its retention, but rather because the government has not yet taken steps to understand fully the nature of public opinion on the subject.
“Were the government to change its stance on the death penalty, there is reliable evidence that its citizens would follow suit.”
Last year, the U.N. Human Rights Committee urged Japan to “give due consideration to the abolition of the death penalty,” while the Japan Federation of Bar Associations asked Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa to suspend the execution of death row inmates, saying public support for the death penalty did not necessarily affect the argument in favor of terminating it.
However, Tokyo hanged a death row inmate in June, bringing the total number of executions under the second administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which started December 2012, to 12.
According to human rights group Amnesty International, 140 countries, or about 70 percent of all nations in the world, had abolished the death penalty by law or in practice as of the end of 2014. In 2014, only 22 countries, including Japan, executed inmates.