Media watch: Nobody wants to talk about the death penalty

Otohiko Kaga

In November, Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Yasuhiro Hanashi was compelled to quit his post as justice minister after he made a careless remark at a political gathering. Hanashi said that he felt the job of justice minister was “low-key” and whoever held the position only merited headlines after he put his seal to an order for carrying out the death penalty. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told Hanashi to resign as minister because, as Kyodo News put it, the remark was “seen as making light of his role in authorizing executions of death-row inmates,” and Kishida’s public support rate didn’t need to go any lower. However, to anyone who follows Japan’s policy regarding capital punishment, the very fact that Hanashi mentioned that policy without being prompted was probably enough to invite critical scrutiny from his peers. You’re just not supposed to talk about it. 

One person who did talk about it a lot was Otohiko Kaga, a psychiatrist and prison chaplain who died at the age of 93 last week. Kaga was very active as an anti-capital punishment advocate and worked to change Japanese detention methods, which he claimed violated international human rights standards. He was especially critical of the way the trial of Chizuo Matsumoto, otherwise known as Shoko Asahara, the leader of the death cult Aum Shinrikyo, was conducted, since he believed all the court proceedings were geared to guarantee a death sentence despite Matsumoto’s diminished capacity. 

Coincidentally, just before Kaga died, Asahi Shimbun ran two interviews on its Koron page about Hanashi’s gaffe and its implications. One of the inteviewees was writer Keiko Horikawa, who herself interviewed Kaga many times and has written several books on Japan’s capital punishment system. 

In the interview, Horikawa was asked to comment on Hanashi’s remark, and she said the first people she thought of were the prison employees whose job it is to carry out executions. They are the ones who have to face the reality of the system and thus the people who “carry the burden”—not the bureaucrats and politicians who make the decisions about who dies and when they die. Hanashi, she said, obviously never thought about those people. If he had, he would never have made such an offhanded comment. For that reason alone, he “doesn’t deserve to be a political leader.”

She went on to say that the indifference inherent in Hanashi’s remark reflected the general attitude among the public toward capital punishment. It’s something they accept without really understanding it. In surveys, the public overwhelmingly supports the death penalty for a simple reason: someone who has carried out a heinous crime must pay for that crime in kind, with their life if necessary. Those who are against the death penalty generally start from the belief that no one has the right to take another life, including the state. But as the interviewer pointed out, these two sides end up talking past each other, and nothing comes of it. 

Horikawa says that’s because both sides only refer to their feelings on the matter rather than on documentation and the real circumstances of the criminal justice system. Any debate must confront not only the details of the crime, but the details of how the punishment is carried out. Death row inmates do not know their hour of execution until the morning it takes place, and the killing is carried out by snapping the neck with a noose, a punishment that has not changed since 1873. It was only until a few years ago that the reality of death row and the death chamber was publicized, though not widely. In any case, the authorities themselves do not discuss these matters openly. 

She reminds the interviewer that when France abolished the death penalty in the 1980s, it was the justice minister who initiated the debate. In other words, it takes political will to engage such a fraught topic, but the general attitude among politicians in Japan is that if they advocate to abolish the death penalty they’ll be voted out of office. 

Horikawa also mentions the lack of consistency in both convictions and sentences for capital offenses. She talks about one famous case from 1966 where the accused was sentenced to death after only two court sessions. The condemned had no criminal record and killed one person during a botched robbery. “His life was worth very little,” she said, and by the late 80s the pendulum had swung. Judges were more likely to sentence convicted murderers to life in prison unless they had killed at least two people. But more than ten years later the pendulum swung back, and sentences became harsher based on nothing more than social anxiety—the Aum terrorist incident made everyone more fearful—and judges’ whims. 

The other Asahi interview was with Hideo Hiraoka, who was justice minister in 2011 during the Democratic Party of Japan’s brief tenure as the ruling party. Hiraoka now heads an organization that is working to abolish capital punishment in Japan. 

The interviewer notes that Hiraoka was justice minister for only four months, and Hiraoka admits that, at the time, he didn’t have a firm opinion on capital punishment, though he did think that any decision to put someone to death had to be approached very seriously. He also wanted to start a discussion with other politicians and the public about the death penalty but was forced out of office before he could implement such a policy. He goes on to say that his initial gambit was strongly criticized by LDP members in the Diet, who maintained that signing death warrants was part of the justice minister’s job description. When he asked related bureaucrats to refer capital cases that they thought should be executed immediately, they gave him two in which multiple people were murdered and that the public had generally ignored due to lack of media interest. He noted that the bureaucrats insisted that in these two cases there was “no possibility” that there had been false conviction, a conclusion that implied there were other cases where false convictions were possible.

This discrepancy made Hiraoka think more deeply about the matter, and when he concluded that had these two people been convicted of the same crimes in Europe, they would not have been placed on death row, he realized that the value of a life changes from one place to another. That realization made him determined to force a public debate on the death penalty. From that basis of thought, he came around to the opinion that the state has no right to take a life and that there was no “scientific proof” that capital punishment was a deterrence to criminal actions.

Hiraoka goes on to talk about the anti-death penalty trend in the world and alternative punishments for heinous crimes, such as life without parole, which he also feels is cruel and unusual. As for the public’s overwhelming insistence that the death penalty should be maintained, he sees these surveys as merely a means for the government to not do anything at all. When the government talks about capital punishment, they only refer to the most horrifying examples, like Aum, thus exacerbating the public’s fear and hatred and avoiding the need to talk about the system as it’s actually carried out. 

For his advocacy, Hiraoka has received a great deal of enmity from voters who say he is siding with “brutal criminals,” but surveys also show that an increasing portion of the public is willing to consider abolishing capital punishment in the future if “conditions change,” but that, he believes, can only come about through rigorous discussion, which the government wants to avoid.

Like Horikawa, Hiraoka thinks that it is the political realm’s responsibility to enter into such a public debate, and in the end the reason that the ruling party and the pertinent bureaucrats continue to push capital punishment is not due to any convictions related to morality or law enforcement, but because it’s “convenient.” No one needs to study why some people are driven to kill. Once a death sentence is carried out, the “problem has been solved”; or, at least, it has until the next brutal crime occurs.

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1 Response to Media watch: Nobody wants to talk about the death penalty

  1. padraigjapan says:

    An excellent piece. I have always wondered if the death penalty is applied equally for people who commit similar crimes but have different means to defend themselves and have different circumstances and backgrounds. It seems that it is far too easy and brutal to continue in this manner.

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