The Japan Federation of Bar Associations’ recent call to abolish capital punishment should serve as a catalyst for informed and broad public discussions. Both the Justice Ministry and the lawyer group have an important role to play in making necessary information available to ensure those discussions are meaningful. The ministry’s responsibility is especially heavy — the secrecy surrounding this nation’s death penalty system is often blamed for the lack of public discourse on the issue.
The bar federation adopted a resolution calling for ending capital punishment at its Oct. 6 meeting in Fukui for promoting protection of human rights, with 546 of the 786 participants supporting it. Some lawyers who support capital punishment criticize that it is unreasonable for the organization not to accept letters of attorney from members who could not attend the meeting. Still, the declaration by the organization comprising some 37,600 Japanese lawyers and hundreds of registered foreign legal professionals is significant. The federation in the past always stopped short of calling for an outright end to death penalty, although at a similar meeting five years ago it called for starting broad discussions on abolishing capital punishment and requested that the justice minister suspend executions.
A key factor behind the move is an international trend. According to Amnesty International, 102 countries had abolished the death penalty as of the end of 2015, a sharp increase from 60 in 1996, and another 38 countries have not carried out executions for 10 years or longer. Of the 35 OECD member countries, only Japan, the United States and South Korea retain capital punishment as an institution, although South Korea’s last execution was in 1997. In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Committee urged Japan to “give due consideration in the abolition of the death penalty.”
Since the current Abe administration came to power in December 2012, a total of 16 inmates have been executed. The bar federation calls for abolishing capital punishment by 2020, when the U.N. Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice is to be held in Japan.
More fundamental factors behind the resolution are inherent problems in the death penalty system, including its vengeful nature as criminal punishment and its cruelty. While noting that even the worst offenders stand a chance of reintegrating with society, the federation charges that if an innocent person or an offender not truly deserving death is executed, the human rights violation is irrecoverable. The risk of false charges and convictions have been highlighted by the fact that four inmates on death row were exonerated in retrials in the 1980s and by the freeing in 2014 of Iwao Hakamada after spending 48 years behind bars. He had been sentenced to death for the 1966 murders of four people on the strength of evidence apparently fabricated by the police.
Supporters of the death penalty refer to the sentiments of crime victims and their family members — who are inclined to think that killers deserve execution — as well as public opinion that favors capital punishment. In the 2014 version of a survey conducted every five years by the Cabinet Office, 80.3 percent of respondents said the death penalty is unavoidable, while only 9.7 percent called for abolishing the system.
At the same time, 40.5 percent of those who endorsed the death penalty system said it can be abolished in the future “if the situation changes.” Of all the respondents, 37.7 percent said the death penalty should be scrapped if life imprisonment without parole is introduced. Currently, a person serving a life sentence has a chance of being paroled after serving at least 10 years in prison. The JFBA’s declaration proposed introduction of either life imprisonment without parole or granting parole only after the inmate has spent 20 to 25 years behind bars — in place of hanging.
But discussions about capital punishment should not just focus on substituting stricter varieties of life in prison. The Justice Ministry should not only provide sufficient information about Japan’s system but study and disclose criminal punishment policies and public opinions on the death penalty in other countries. This kind of information is indispensable for informative discussions.
The government should gather and provide information as to whether capital punishment is an effective deterrent to crime, including through comparison of examples of countries that maintain the death penalty and those that have abolished it. Relying just on public opinion endorsing capital punishment to justify its existence does not stand up to reason.
Another point to consider is whether the treatment of death row inmates is humane enough. Such prisoners in Japan are kept in solitary confinement and their communication with people outside is tightly restricted. Currently, the ministry doesn’t give advance notice of executions to the inmates nor to their lawyers and relatives, and it is not clear what criteria is used in deciding when a prisoner is to be executed.
Since the introduction of the lay judge system in 2009, it is now possible for ordinary citizens to take part in handing down a death penalty. That alone calls for more public discussions on capital punishment. Relevant authorities and parties should not dismiss the JFBA’s call but use it as material for the public to think about the issue, irrespective of which position they take on the matter.