The secrecy surrounding executions in Japan, including the opaque procedure leading up the decision on whom on death row to hang and when, is a problem that was once again highlighted in the July 6 execution of Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara and six other former members of the cult convicted of a series of deadly crimes, including the 1995 sarin gassing on Tokyo subway trains. Whether or not people support the death penalty, they should be given enough information about the system and its implementation to make an informed judgment on the issue. More efforts are needed to promote transparency in Japan’s death penalty system and executions.
The criticism voiced by the European Union and other parties over the hangings of the Aum cultists focused on the capital punishment system. According to Amnesty International, more than 140 countries around the world have either abolished the death penalty or effectively shelved it. Japan, the United States and South Korea are the sole OECD members that retain capital punishment, though South Korea has not executed anyone since 1997.
In a joint statement, the European Union Delegation to Japan, ambassadors of EU member states and Iceland, Norway and Switzerland said they “are strongly and unequivocally opposed to the use of capital punishment under all circumstances,” noting that the death penalty “fails to act as a deterrent to crime.” While condemning the crimes committed by the doomsday cult, Amnesty International said that “justice demands accountability but also respect for everyone’s human rights” and that “the death penalty can never deliver this as it is the ultimate denial of human rights.”
However, the government remains firm in maintaining capital punishment, citing overwhelming popular support for it. In fact, the latest Cabinet Office survey taken in 2014 showed 80 percent of the respondents condoning capital punishment, as opposed to a mere 9.7 percent who called for its abolition. The death sentences on the seven executed Aum Shinrikyo members were handed down and finalized following open trials that took years to complete on the doomsday cult’s horrific crimes.
People who endorse the death penalty view it as a due punishment for the heinous crimes committed, and inevitable in view of the sentiments of victims of the crimes and their families. Those calling for its abolition see capital punishment as a cruel and inhumane penalty — and point out that executions of people wrongly convicted of offenses they never committed result in an irreversible injustice. Government surveys have shown that a strong majority of the people polled endorse capital punishment as unavoidable, although the margin of support for the death penalty declined sharply when the respondents were asked the same question if there were a life term without parole — an idea on which discussion has not made much progress.
Executions in Japan used to be veiled in secrecy. In the past, the Justice Ministry officially kept executions under wraps — until in 1998 when it started to disclose the number of death row inmates hanged when executions took place, and in 2007 began releasing the names of the executed and the places where they were hanged. But even today, many of the decisions surrounding executions are made behind closed doors.
The Criminal Procedure Law stipulates that the justice minister should order an execution within six months after a death sentence is finalized — but the rule is rarely followed. Some inmates have been executed within about a year after their sentence became final, while others have remained on death row for decades. Executions do not take place while trials involving accomplices of condemned prisoners are ongoing, as in the case of the Aum cultists. Death row inmates seeking retrial of their cases may be executed — as happened with some of the seven Aum cultists hanged July 6, including Asahara.
The Justice Ministry does not explain how it chooses which inmates among all those on death row to be hanged, or the date of the executions. Asked how the seven Aum members were chosen to be executed on July 6, Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa declined to comment, only saying the decision was made with extreme care.
She also would not go into specifics of how the ministry determined that Asahara was sufficiently mentally competent to be executed — despite some earlier allegations that he was not — in light of the Criminal Procedure Law provision that execution of a death row inmate in a state of insanity will be suspended at the justice minister’s order. She only commented that “careful consideration” was given to the matter by getting him to undergo a doctor’s diagnosis. That is the kind of question that deserves a proper answer to ensure that due process is followed in enforcing the justice system’s ultimate punishment.