Last week, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced his plans to reinstate the death penalty, which was abolished in his country in 2006. Duterte says he believes in retribution: If you kill someone, you deserve to die.
Some people are shocked by this rationale, but they shouldn’t be. The death penalty has always been more or less about revenge, though it is sometimes justified as a deterrent. The Japanese government has never clearly explained its adoption of capital punishment except to say that most Japanese people want it. In recent years, some have called for a nationwide debate on the death penalty, including one justice minister who actually signed off on an execution for the purpose of starting such a debate.
Recently, several major newspapers, including The Japan Times, published the name of the man who was sentenced to death for two murders he committed in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, in 2010 as a minor. Making this name public breaks a self-imposed rule that people arrested or convicted as minors will not be identified publicly. The ostensible reason for this rule is that the suspect has a chance at rehabilitation, which means he or she could re-enter society at some future date. In the minor’s case, some newspapers claimed that, since the young man in question was condemned to death, there was no possibility of rehabilitation, so it was OK to print his name.
This reasoning has always been used by the tabloids and weeklies, especially Shukan Shincho, which has often published the names of people arrested for murder as minors. Shincho’s real reasons are cynical — they know if they print the name, people will buy the magazine — but they explain the disclosure by saying the public has a right to know, as if understanding the name of a boy who killed someone would make readers better citizens. Regardless of one’s opinion of such revelations, the argument over whether or not it is ethical is a sideshow to the main event: shallow, one-sided coverage of a capital case.
In journalist Keiko Horikawa’s 2013 book about Norio Nagayama, who was convicted of murdering four people in 1968 when he was 19 and executed in 1997, she explains how the Supreme Court’s reversal of a lower court’s reduction of Nagayama’s sentence to life-in-prison gave rise to the so-called Nagayama Criteria, which are used by judges to determine whether or not they should impose the death penalty. Among these criteria are previous criminal record, number of people killed, degree of remorse, age at the time of the crime, impact on society, method of killing and the feelings of victims’ families. Though they have been referenced in court, experts say they have never constituted a uniform judicial standard. In fact, the application of Nagayama Criteria, especially those regarding victims’ families, social impact and the perceived “brutality” factor, tends to be determined by public sentiment rather than the tenets of criminal justice.
Convicted murderers are now being sentenced to death based on considerations that would not have led to capital punishment in the past. So while the number of murders has dropped in the last few decades, the number of death sentences has increased. Horikawa believes the change has come about through an effort to make people feel “less guilty” about the death penalty.
When the lay judge system was implemented seven years ago, it institutionalized this effort by giving average people the power to put someone to death. First, certain standards had to be allowed into court and emphasized, such as the feelings of victims’ families, who are now allowed to question defendants before a verdict is reached, even if they have pleaded not guilty. In Horikawa’s book, one of the lay judges for the Ishinomaki case is quoted as having said after the trial, “If the victim’s family hadn’t demanded it, I wouldn’t have voted for capital punishment.”
In the March issue of Sekai magazine, Masayoshi Taguchi writes about how he formed his group, the Lay Judge Community Club, made up of former lay judges like himself, for the purpose of studying capital punishment so that future lay judges would be able to make better decisions. Several members of LJCC heard capital cases, and they say the only things they were told about the death penalty during the trial is that the execution must take place within six months of the sentence’s finalization and that hanging is the method used.
The group sent a letter in February 2014 to the Justice Ministry asking it to explain the “system,” including how death-row inmates spend their days, why Japan maintains the death penalty, why it chose hanging, how the ministry decides when a person is to be put to death, and why condemned prisoners are not informed of their execution until the morning it is to take place. The ministry never answered the letter, despite follow-up phone calls and messages.
Taguchi writes that at his first post-execution press conference, Justice Minister Mitsuhide Iwaki made a point of mentioning “the victims’ families’ feelings,” even though, according to the law, the death penalty is not supposed to be used to “satisfy desires for revenge.” At another press conference last December, where Iwaki announced two executions — including that of Sumitoshi Tsuda, whose death was decided by a member of the LJCC — a reporter for the Asahi Shimbun asked him if the ministry will ever reply to the LJCC’s letter. Iwaki said they are still studying the matter, which in bureaucratese means, “No, we will not.”
The government doesn’t want to talk about it and, for the most part, the media doesn’t either. Last year, during a news conference for a book she had just published about the victims of Hiroshima, Horikawa said she started writing books about capital punishment because it was a taboo subject for the mainstream media. That’s not entirely true. The media loves covering murder cases from the standpoint of victims’ families, who have their full attention. When the purpose is retribution, no effort is too great. Understanding is something else.