Japanese judges appear ready to remain out of step with much of the rest of the civilized world by continuing to impose the death penalty. Some officials responsible for the administration of justice in this country compound the issue by the apparent avidity with which they defend and support capital punishment, which in Japan is inflicted by hanging. The Fukuoka District Court on Wednesday sentenced to death a 52-year-old man convicted of murdering a man and a woman a decade ago for insurance money he was unable to obtain. One day earlier, Justice Minister Hideo Usui made the controversial statement in the Diet that executions could be carried out on death-row convicts who had requested retrials if it seemed highly unlikely their requests would be granted.

Since instructions to carry out executions must be signed by the justice minister, Mr. Usui’s comment seems to mean that he feels qualified to determine in advance (“guess” might be the better word) whether the nation’s courts will reject a death-row convict’s appeal for retrial. His surprising statement came in response to a question from a Social Democratic Party member in a session of the Judicial Affairs Committee of the House of Councilors. Mr. Usui had been asked about the questionable execution last December of a 62-year-old convict whose request for a retrial had not yet been acted on. If his reply was correctly reported, it is not only citizens’ groups calling for a ban on capital punishment that should be concerned.

The announcement by the convict in the Fukuoka case the day after the court’s decision that he would not appeal his death sentence in no way alters the fact that the justice minister’s comment could indicate a disturbing new trend in government policy involving basic human rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Only a little more than a year ago, one of Mr. Usui’s predecessors announced a relaxation of the extreme secrecy with which the Justice Ministry had long surrounded executions, even refusing to acknowledge they had been conducted. This followed increasing public demand for more information, although the change involves only when executions are carried out and the number of those hanged. The names are still not announced, ostensibly in deference to family privacy.

Japan’s prosecutors are well-known — opponents of capital punishment say notorious — for demanding the death penalty for criminals convicted of vicious crimes. Just over two years ago, public prosecutors took the unusual step of sending written requests to the Supreme Court, three times in one year in fact, for “clarification” of the criteria for the death penalty. Questioning the presumed reluctance of the courts at the time to impose capital punishment, they argued that passing life sentences instead for serious crimes was not in keeping with “established standards” or with public opinion.

Only Japan and the United States among major industrialized nations continue to execute criminals. Elsewhere, China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Taiwan are among those that do. If Mr. Usui’s Diet comment is any indication, the “standards” are once more in effect here. In any event, the prosecutors accurately gauged the public’s views. In a survey conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office last fall, the first on the subject in five years, nearly 80 percent of respondents — a record high — supported the death penalty. Only 8.8 percent supported abolition, a record low.

Respondents were allowed to choose more than one answer for their reasons for favoring capital punishment. Nearly half, or 49.3 percent, thought it was justifiable “atonement” for serious crimes, and nearly as many, 48.6 percent, thought only executions would satisfy the families of victims of such crimes. As many as 48.2 percent thought the death penalty served as a deterrent, although statistical evidence to support that conclusion is woefully lacking. No one, it seems, mentioned the possibility of the wrong person being hanged, although many convictions for serious crimes have been overturned on appeal in recent years.

The civilized voices in this country calling for an end to capital punishment are having little effect. The 8.8 percent of respondents that favored abolition represent a decline of 4.8 percent from 1994. The reason most frequently cited for their opposition was that the government should not have the right to take people’s lives. It should not, although society must be protected from dangerous criminals, by lifetime sentences if necessary. The citizens’ groups and the suprapartisan league of Diet members that seek to halt executions in this country still have much to do to convince the public.

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