The government has customarily granted pardons to people convicted of crimes on the occasion of major national events, including in congratulations or in mourning related to the imperial family. The pardons granted last week in light of Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony were targeted at roughly 550,000 people who had committed mainly petty offenses to restore their suspended rights.

The system of amnesty in Japan dates back to the Nara Period in the eighth century. The system was originally meant as a tool for governing in which rulers showed their mercy by pardoning criminals to gain popular support. Today, however, questions persist over the practice because it results in the administrative branch overturning or altering criminal punishments handed down by the judiciary. This round of pardons should give people a chance to consider whether the current system of the government granting amnesty is appropriate in view of the separation of powers in modern society.

The government says that the granting of such pardons is significant because it serves as an incentive for people who have committed crimes to work to rehabilitate themselves and make a full return to society. However, it is questionable whether the pardons uniformly granted to convicted offenders who meet conditions set by government ordinance — without examining the degree of rehabilitation of the convicted people on a case-by-case basis — will truly serve that purpose.

In modern Japan, the power to grant amnesty solely belonged to the emperor under the Meiji Constitution. Under the postwar Constitution, attestation of amnesty, communication of punishment, reprieve and restoration of rights is listed among the “acts in matters of state” that the emperor is to perform with the advice and approval of the Cabinet. So far, such pardons have been granted on a total of 10 occasions to mark major national events, including when the San Francisco Peace Treaty took effect in 1952 and Okinawa’s reversion to Japan in 1972. In the pardons given in 1952, the sentences of people on death row were reportedly commuted to life in prison.

There are two types of amnesty granted by the government. When pardons are granted by government ordinance, the Cabinet decides on the crimes or punishment meted out to be covered by the amnesty, and the pardons are granted uniformly to convicted offenders who meet the criteria. Pardons are also granted on individual cases based on a review by the Justice Ministry’s National Offenders Rehabilitation Commission, either on the occasion of major national events or on a regular basis.

Pardons were granted twice on the occasion of the transition from the Showa to Heisei eras. More than 10 million people were granted amnesty on the occasion of the death of Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, in 1989, and some 2.5 million others were pardoned to mark the 1990 enthronement ceremony of Emperor Akihito. The latest pardons on the occasion of Emperor Naruhito’s ascension to the throne followed those granted in 1993 to celebrate his marriage.

In the 1989 and 1990 pardons, a total of about 20,000 people convicted of violating the Public Offices Election Law were granted amnesty — leading to criticism that the pardons were selectively granted for political motivations. Although the number is significantly lower, the latest pardons are estimated to cover more than 400 people convicted of campaign-related offenses.

Questions about the government granting pardons to offenders increased as the sentiments of crime victims and their families were given greater consideration in the criminal justice system. In a Kyodo News survey this month, about 25 percent of the respondents supported the pardons granted to mark the emperor’s enthronement ceremony, while 60 percent were opposed.

Pardons granted in recent years have been limited to restoring the rights of people convicted of relatively minor offenses. The latest pardons did not cover people handed prison terms for their offenses, and no commutation of or reprieve from punishment were granted. About 80 percent of those granted pardons had violated traffic laws or were involved in traffic accidents. Only the people who had paid the fines for their offenses more than three years previously were picked, and the pardons restore rights that had been suspended.

One aspect of granting pardons is said to be the provision of relief to people who might have been wrongly convicted. However, that purpose should be served by the regular pardons given on individual cases based on reviews by the Justice Ministry commission. Whether uniform pardons given on the occasion of major national events — either they cover large numbers of people or narrow down their targets — is appropriate under today’s legal system should be subject to public discussion.

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