As World Dials Back Death Penalty, Japan Heads in Opposite Direction

Article excerpt

Few Japanese are likely to have mourned the deaths of Katsuji Hamasaki and Yoshihide Miyagi. In 2005, the two members of the gangster underworld conspired to shoot dead two rivals in a restaurant, jeopardizing the safety of bystanders. The men hanged for their crimes in Tokyo last Friday, as Japan conducted its fourth and fifth executions of the year.

Newspapers announced the demise of the hardened gangsters, sent to the gallows for their "heinous and brutal" crimes. But human rights groups have voiced concern that Japan's renewed enthusiasm for the death penalty is leaving it increasingly out of touch with the rest of the world.

The conservative administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been in office only two months before his justice minister, Sadakazu Tanigaki, ordered the executions of prisoners, including the killer of a 7-year-old girl, in February.

After the most recent hangings, Mr. Tanigaki cited clear public support for capital punishment and said he would not hesitate to sign more execution orders.

"It was an extremely vicious and cruel crime, and carried the risk of involving ordinary people," he told reporters. "And many people in Japan say we need [the death penalty]."

Attacks feed support

Public support for the death penalty hardened after a series of high-profile crimes that forced Japanese to question their country's reputation for safety. The March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, in which 13 people died, was a rare incident of indiscriminate mass murder, and left a nation traumatized. Similarly shocking crimes were to follow: in 1998, four people died and dozens were made ill in Wakayama after a housewife laced curry with arsenic at a local festival; and in 2001, a man burst into an elementary school in Osaka and fatally knifed eight pupils to death.

Last week's executions drew criticism from Amnesty International, which noted a "chilling" escalation in the use of the death penalty since Mr. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party [LDP] returned to power in December last year. (Japan has company in that regard. Read the Monitor's report on Amnesty International's global findings.)

"This chilling news appears to reinforce our fears that the new government is increasing the pace of executions at an alarming rate," Catherine Baber, the organization's Asia Pacific director, said in a statement.

"With five executions already this year, it seems clear the government has no intention of heeding international calls to start a genuine and open public debate on the death penalty, including its abolition."

In executing its most wicked killers, Japan is further isolating itself internationally. It is one of 58 countries, including the US, China, and Iran, that retain capital punishment, while more than 140 other countries, including all members of the European Union, have abolished it in law or practice.

Last week's executions mean there are now 134 inmates on death row in Japan, the highest number since records began in 1949.

But campaigners say they fear that a slew of executions is imminent, as Abe attempts to shore up public support before crucial upper house elections in July.

Victory for the LDP would give it control of both houses of Japan's Diet, or parliament, ending years of political deadlock. …