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Death penalty

Julian Ryall, TokyoMarch 1, 2013

While executions in other countries arouse heated debates on the morality of the state killing a human being, there has been no such discussion in Japan, despite current court rulings allowing the procedure.

Ein nachgebauter Galgen steht am Freitag (19.02.2010) im Eingangsbereich des Neanderthal Museums in Mettmann. Er gehört zu der Sonderaustellung "Galgen, Rad und Scheiterhaufen", die bis zum 27. Juni 2010 Einblicke in den gruseligen Leistungskatalog der Strafen und seine Orte im 17. Jahrhundert gibt. Foto: Roland Weihrauch dpa/lnw (zu KORR:" Henker, Beil und Galgen - Museum zeigt das Grauen")
Symbolbild Todesstrafe GalgenImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Japan's Supreme Court has dismissed a final appeal by a man convicted of being involved in the deaths of four men in 2004 and confirmed that 38-year-old Reo Ito should be executed.

Ito beat and suffocated two of the men, who were fellow members of a team of fraudsters, after discovering that they had been trying to steal money that the group had illegally obtained. He then inflicted injuries on the other two men that were sufficiently severe as to lead to their deaths.

The judge in the case ruled that Ito's crime had been "cruel and brutal" and that he displayed "disregard for human life."

Ito becomes the 131st person on death row in Japan, bumping the figure up again after it was reduced one week previously with the execution of three men.

Kaoru Kobayashi, 44, was hanged after being convicted of kidnapping and killing an elementary schoolgirl in 2004. Masahiro Kanagawa, aged 29, had been found guilty of a series of random killing in 2008, while 62-year-old Keiko Kano was executed for the murder of a bar owner in Nagoya in March 2002.

Speaking at a press conference after the deaths of the three men, Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki explained the reason why he had signed the approval orders for the first executions since the right-of-center Liberal Democratic Party was voted back into power in December.

'Atrocious crimes'

"All these cases involved atrocious crimes that stole previous lives for selfish reasons," he said.

Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)
'These cases involved atrocious crimes,' said Justice Minister Sadakazu TanigakiImage: AP

A cross-party group of politicians filed a protest with the government and said the Justice Ministry was failing to provide information about the death penalty - including the fact that more nations are abolishing capital punishment - and stifling debate on the issue.

The protest was hardly mentioned by the local media, which dwelled on the grisly nature of the crimes the three men committed.

"I think it was the right thing to do because those men had all taken a life and this punishment is the law in Japan," said Kanako Hosomura, a housewife from Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo. "I'm a mother and when I read what one of them did to a little girl, it makes me so angry.

"If I were that girl's mother, I would want him to be executed as well."

Support for the death penalty has remained consistantly high in Japan, with recent polls indicating that more than 80 percent of the public supported the execution of people convicted of particularly heinous crimes.

"The concept does not appear to upset too many Japanese and a lot of them are of the opinion that if someone commits a heinous crime, then they deserve the death penalty," said Tom Gill, a professor of anthropology at Meiji Gakuin University.

Sanctity of human life

"The death penalty has been abolished and reinstated several times in Japanese history, but there seems to be less of a concept of the absolute sanctity of human life, particularly for someone who has taken another life," he said.

"And on top of that, there is also a tendency in Japanese society to write-off someone who has done something shameful."

Despite the widespread support for the death penalty here, there are human rights groups that are attempting to keep it on the political agenda.

"We have been calling on the Japanese government to introduce a moratorium on executions, to encourage a national debate and disclose more information on the use of the death penalty," said Sonoko Kawakami, a campaigner with the Japanese branch of Amnesty International.

"We also want a broader review of the criminal justice system to examine why so many wrongful convictions have recently been uncovered," she added. Activists claim that the use of confessions in securing convictions is a flawed system - in particular when police can hold and interrogate a suspect for up to 23 days without legal representation.

"I think there are several reasons that, when combined, keep public support for the death penalty so high in Japan," Kawakami told Deutsche Welle. "Firstly, the media exaggerates the stories to gain sympathy for the victims' families and encourage tough sentences.

Public unaware of details

"I also don't think that the Japanese public really knows the details of how executions are carried out because the issue is not discussed," she said. "And I do not believe that many Japanese are aware that more than 70 percent of countries have done away with the death penalty or that United Nations resolutions have condemned the practice."

Symbolbild Todesstrafe Giftspritze. 51220155.JPG Giftspritze - lethal injection. Erstellung: 07.10.2009. Copyright: Bilderbox
Anti-death penalty advocates are trying to keep the issue on the agendaImage: BilderBox

The European Union has reacted strongly to the latest executions, with Hans Dietmar Schweisgut, ambassador of the Delegation of the European Union to Japan, condemning the deaths.

"I deeply regret the execution of three death row inmates on February 21, 2012," he said in a statement. "The EU is opposed to the use of capital punishment in all cases and under all circumstances and has consistently called for its universal abolition.

"I sincerely hope that Japan will consider a moratorium on executions while allowing a comprehensive public debate on this issue," he added.

But, with the Japanese government riding high in the polls and the public expressing little concern for the three men most recently executed, it appears that calls for debate of the issue will fall on deaf ears.