Until July 28, no executions had been carried out for a year in Japan, with death row convicts numbering a record 109. On that day, two inmates were hanged in the Tokyo Detention House.

Justice Minister Keiko Chiba, a human rights lawyer who used to be a member of a Diet members’ league for the abolition of the death penalty, ordered the executions. Moreover, she witnessed them — probably the first justice minister to do so.

Torn apart between her personal belief and duty as justice minister, Ms. Chiba must have had a hard time. After the executions, she said, “(Seeing the executions) forced me to think deeply again about the death penalty.” She said she will set up in her ministry a panel to discuss the death penalty, including whether it should be continued, and open the gallows at the detention house to mass media coverage.

Because capital punishment in Japan has been veiled in secrecy, wide public discussions are needed. The Justice Ministry started announcing executions and the number of inmates executed as late as November 1998, followed by the names of inmates executed and the places where the executions took place in December 2007.

Already 139 countries have abolished the death penalty or suspended executions for a long time. Japan is among the 57 countries that maintain capital punishment. The panel must get and disclose concrete information on the relationship between the existence or nonexistence of the death penalty and the occurrence of serious crimes.

In a December 2009 government poll, 86 percent of those surveyed supported capital punishment. With the lay judge system in place, the possibility cannot be ruled out that citizens have to hand down death sentences.

It is all the more important that full information be provided to citizens about capital punishment and that they develop well-informed opinions. The panel should include people from outside the Justice Ministry and should take into account the opinions and feelings of death row inmates. Ms. Chiba should consider calls from various groups for suspending executions while the panel’s discussions are going on.

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