Two prominent lawyers, one for the death penalty and the other against it, held a heated debate last Thursday at a symposium in Tokyo that sought to deepen discussion on Japan’s capital punishment system.
Yuji Ogawara, a Tokyo-based lawyer, contended that the death penalty should be abolished because of the possibility of a miscarriage of justice.
“In Japan, a suspect is interrogated, for example, by investigators without a defense lawyer present,” he said. “Given the shortcomings of a judicial system handled by human beings, wrong judgments cannot be avoided.”
He cited the exoneration of four death-row inmates through retrials in the 1980s. In 2014, another death-row inmate was released following 48 years behind bars after a court reopened his case. The decision has been appealed by prosecutors.
Ogawara, secretary-general of a Japan Federation of Bar Associations committee that seeks a moratorium on capital punishment, also said that a democratic society that respects human rights and justice cannot cling forever to a punishment system that allows some offenders to be killed.
Ogawara was involved in drafting a declaration by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations seeking the abolition of the death penalty by 2020.
The symposium was organized by the Delegation of the European Union to Japan following that declaration, and was attended by around 120 people. The European Union regularly releases statements of protest after executions in Japan.
Countering Ogawara, Masato Takahashi, vice president of the National Association of Crime Victims and Surviving Families, said those victimized by murders “want offenders to pay for their crimes with death.”
Their feelings of retribution must be satisfied legally, Takahashi argued.
“Criminal courts were controlled by judges, prosecutors, defense counsels and defenders, while victims and bereaved families were kept out of the loop and were used merely as ‘evidence’ to be examined,” he said. “But they are now guaranteed the opportunity to raise their voices in court. … It is their right to demand that the state hang offenders on their behalf.”
Japan introduced the lay judge system in 2009, in which a panel of six citizens and three professional judges deliberate serious crimes, including capital cases.
Given that development, calls have grown that the government should disclose more information on the execution process, including the process by which the order of executions is decided.
The secrecy surrounding executions in Japan has been criticized at home and abroad, with neither death-row inmates nor their lawyers and families being given advance notice of hangings. It also remains unclear what criteria authorities use in deciding when inmates are to be executed.
“We need to promote further debate on capital punishment as part of our effort to create a better society, and we need to have more information for that purpose,” Ogawara said.
After the Japan Federation of Bar Associations last month adopted the declaration calling for abolition of the death penalty, the government executed a death-row inmate on Nov. 11 — the 17th execution in the almost four years since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to office in December 2012.
After the hanging, the EU Delegation issued a statement, together with the heads of mission of EU member states and the heads of mission of Norway and Switzerland, noting, “We hold a strong and principled position against the death penalty and we are opposed to the use of capital punishment under any circumstances.”
While a government survey shows more than 80 percent of the people support capital punishment, Japan has faced international criticism, with the U.N. Human Rights Committee in 2014 urging Japan to “give due consideration to the abolition of the death penalty.”
“I think Japan should make efforts to maintain international solidarity with other nations sharing the same democratic values, including those in the European Union, rather than keeping the death penalty,” Ogawara said.
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