Should murderers be put to death? Yes, says Japan. No, says (increasingly) much of the rest of the world. Japan swims against the current.

The execution of criminals — not just murderers — was formerly, in Japan as elsewhere, a matter of course. The social order was sacred, no quarter given to the disorderly — a broad swath that might include thieves, adulterers, abettors of adultery, Christians, even persons found lacking in Confucian filial piety.

Beheading, as befits a sword-wielding nation, was the preferred method of dispatch, but crucifixion and burning at the stake were alternate possibilities. Executions were public. They were entertainment; they were deterrent. Severed heads were displayed for public gawking on specially constructed gibbets.

We congratulate ourselves today on living in more humane times. Amnesty International in its charter expresses the broad current of world opinion: “The death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights. It is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state. This cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment is done in the name of justice.”

Counterarguments, and countersentiments, seem to resonate more forcefully in Japan than in other democratic countries that value human rights. “Cruel, inhuman and degrading” — all punishment is that. Deprivation of liberty is degrading, yet few advocate the abolition of prisons.

What is the appropriate punishment for crimes that practically all humanity unites in calling heinous? The July executions of 13 Aum Shinrikyo cultists aroused little domestic outrage. The roughly 80 percent support for capital punishment — “passive” though critics say that support is — remains intact, as an August survey by the Asahi Shimbun shows.

A junior high school girl who responded to the Asahi poll fresh from a discussion of the issue in her social science class said: “Someone who has killed many people does not atone for the crime simply by being in jail. In jail you eat, you bathe, you sleep in a futon. I don’t understand why a person who has killed should go on living normally.” Being in prison is not quite, of course, “living normally.” But it’s close enough in the eyes of many. Still, only the “worst cases,” the girl added, should be punishable by death.

“Worst cases,” yes, but what are they? The ones that make us shudder most? Shukan Kinyobi magazine invites us to consider the following.

It concerns death row inmate Kazuya Tsuchiya, convicted of stabbing to death two elderly people in November and December 2014. His first victim was 93, his second 81.

Shukan Kinyobi’s report was written by journalist Chizuru Kawauchi, who made contact with Tsuchiya, as she has with other death row inmates in an effort to understand them better. Are they evil? Ill? Victims of an unjust society? There are no easy generalizations. Even narrowing the questions down to one individual at a time yields no answer that will satisfy everyone — or anyone, perhaps.

Tsuchiya was 26 at the time of his crimes. If ever blind circumstances conspired to blight a person’s life from birth, they did Tsuchiya’s. He was born into poverty, placed in a children’s home at the age of 1, managed to graduate senior high school but thereafter drifted from job to job before finally drifting out of work altogether. He lived on welfare for a time but drifted out of that, too. Dealing with people — in this case welfare officials — was simply too painful. He retreated into his room, playing computer games, sinking deeper and deeper into debt. Rent unpaid, electricity cut off, starving, he took to the streets. One November night in 2014 he slipped into a house in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, intending to steal food. Surprised by the 93-year-old householder, he lashed out at her with a knife. A month later it was almost the same story, played out this time against a couple. He killed the husband, wounded the wife. A week later he was arrested after breaking into a ramen restaurant. He confessed to the murders and began his journey to death row.

He was starving, desperate. He suffered besides, two psychiatrists testified at his trial, from personality disorders that were a kind of barrier between him and his fellow humans. Unable to communicate, he lost contact with the world, and when the world confronted him, in the form of elderly people shocked at finding him in their homes, he simply lashed out, damn the consequences.

The court that pronounced him guilty acknowledged the personality disorders but found them not materially relevant to the crimes.

In her report, Kawauchi portrays Tsuchiya as a kind of Japan in microcosm. She sees social ties weakening everywhere, communication shriveling to monosyllables, and family members, colleagues and friends reduced to near if not total strangers. Feelings dammed up potentially burst forth as action — bullying, suicide, murder. “I see criminals in embryo,” nourished, she writes, by “an inability to connect with society — the more so as youth poverty grows more acute, as it has been in recent years.”

Some of the death row inmates she has corresponded with have been open and more or less friendly, more or less eager to explain or apologize. Not Tsuchiya. He didn’t ignore her overtures, but he didn’t welcome them either. In court, she says, he was similarly uncommunicative. Only once, she says, did he give a clear and unequivocal answer to a question. The question, from one of the lay judges hearing the case, was, “If your childhood had been different, do you think you would have been able to lead a different life?”

“Yes,” said Tsuchiya.

Is this one of the “worst cases”? For the victims, every case is a worst case.

One morning, then, barring fresh developments — maybe tomorrow morning, maybe next year, or in five years, 10, 30, there’s simply no knowing — a guard will visit Tsuchiya’s tiny cell and indicate his life is over. He will be hanged shortly thereafter. After it’s done — not before — family members, if any, and the media will be informed. To journalists who inquire, “Why him? Why now? How was the decision made?” — the answer will be, in effect, “No comment.”

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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