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
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. …