Does Capital Punishment Make Japan a ‘Barbaric’ Country?
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Does Capital Punishment Make Japan a ‘Barbaric’ Country?

Once upon a time civilized societies tortured accused criminals into confessing. “Barbaric,” we say now. Capital punishment, until recently and almost everywhere, was the sentence for a vast array of crimes, from murder down to petty theft; sometimes for no offense at all, at the whim of a lordly aristocrat irked by a peasant’s insolence. “Barbaric.” Increasingly, in the advanced democracies, that is the current of thought and feeling.

Civilization matures and grows more humane. Capital punishment is lately dubbed “judicial murder,” with the accent on murder. The European Union officially banned it in 2000, as have 23 U.S. states, with moratoria in effect in most others. Europe’s last execution – Belarus excepted – was in 1997. South Korea’s was in 1987.

Then there’s Japan. Executions proceed apace. The U.N. and human rights groups worldwide protest in vain. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations calls for abolition – unheeded. A 2020 government poll shows 80 percent of the public favor retaining it. And retained it is – boldly and unapologetically. Since 2000 there have been 98 executions in Japan.

Is Japan “barbaric”? Journalist Yoichi Miyashita, writing in Shukan Shincho (March 23), denies it. He’s covered capital punishment-related issues in Japan, Europe and the U.S. He’s come to feel there’s a case to be made for retention – a moral and civilized case. Helping him make it is Yuki Minamino. Speaking of convicted murderer Kyozo Isohi, she says, “He killed my husband. Why should he live?”

Music producer Shingo Minamino, walking down an Osaka street one June day in 2012, was stabbed from behind. He and another victim, Toshi Sasaki, were rushed to hospital, where both died. Arrested at the scene was Isohi, then just out of prison after serving a sentence for drug abuse. Prison had not cured him, apparently. He heard voices in his head, he told investigators. “Kill! Kill!” they cried. He said initially he’d wanted to die, and killed in order to be executed. Later he seems to have changed his mind, and expressed a fear of dying.

Osaka District Court sentenced him to death. Appealed, the ruling was amended to life in prison. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 2019 upheld the lighter sentence – life, not death.

“He’s expressed no remorse, shown no repentance,” Minamino tells Miyashita. If drug hallucinations led him on, “he took drugs of his own free will. That’s no reason to reduce the sentence.”

Toshi Sasaki’s son feels the same way. “I want him dead,” he says. “I’d push the button myself.”

“Only the bereaved,” says Minamino, “can know the hatred the bereaved feel for the murderer.”

Extreme cases, it is said, make bad laws. Many murderers do express remorse. Some convicted murderers are not even guilty. Law courts, like humans in general, are fallible and corruptible, sometimes biased – notably against the poor. Only last month a retrial was finally granted Iwao Hakamada, who spent 48 years on death row for a mass murder committed in 1966 but not by him. Released from prison in 2014, aged 78, he still awaits official vindication, though his innocence is acknowledged. Now 87, he survives as the world’s longest-held death row inmate. Nothing can give him back his lost years, but his execution, had it been carried out, would have deepened the injustice.

Among Japan’s harshest critics has been France. Miyashita turns his attention to that country. Can it seriously claim moral superiority?

In May 2022 in Marseille a 19-year-old man was shot dead by police. Stopped for questioning, he’d apparently tried to flee. “It’s capital punishment by another name,” writes Miyashita in Shukan Shincho; “capital punishment executed on the street” he quotes the victim’s father as telling him – arbitrarily by police instead of judicially in court.

The social order in France, writes Miyashita, who lived in Europe for 25 years, has deteriorated markedly in recent years. Japan, he says, remains comparatively safe. In Marseille in 2022 there were 149 incidents of murder and attempted murder; in Tokyo in 2021, 83. Marseille’s population is 900,000; Tokyo’s, 14 million.

In France in 2018 there were 26 killings of suspects by police; in Japan that year, two.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “Arimasen.” 

Source : Japantoday