Monday, May 19, 2008

Is Today the Day?

The sound of Buddhist priests chanting sutras is clearly audible on the tape along with some muted conversation between the inmate and his executioners. Then there is a loud thump when the trap door is sprung and then just the sound of the rope creaking.

This radio broadcast of a hanging that took place somewhere in Japan in 1955, including those chilling sounds, was broadcast earlier this month at mid week over the Nippon Cultural Broadcasting System as part of an hour long documentary program “Shikei Shikkou” or “Execution of a Death Sentence” .

It provided an unusual glimpse into one of the more secretive aspects of Japanese culture, the manner in which it administers the death penalty. The hour-long program included in addition to interviews with former guards, prosecutors, anti-capital punishment advocates, a five minute segment from a “training” tape that it obtained from one of Japan’s seven prisons with a gallows (it didn’t say which one or how it obtained the tape.)

Many people, even in Japan, are unaware that the country has capital punishment, and that’s the way the government likes it. No messy vigils outside the prison gates, no questions in parliament, no dramatic last-minute appeals to the governor – just the impersonal workings of the state.

Of course, people in Japan go on trial, are convicted and sentenced to death in open court. But then they disappear into the dark maw of Japan’s penal system where, after appeals are exhausted, the prisoner waits, and waits, and waits until one morning guards show up at his solitary cell and tell him “today is the day.”

The inmate has perhaps an hour to compose himself, perhaps write a short farewell note, have a cigarette, and then he is handcuffed, hooded and swiftly hanged. Aside from the warden and some guards there are no witnesses.

And no public notices either. It is only recently that the Ministry of Justice has issued terse press releases stating that an execution has taken place and only since last December, under the current justice minister, has the ministry released the names of the condemned and the crime they were convicted of.

In the past, journalists had to sniff out the story using investigative reporting techniques, usually contacting or hearing from the family of the condemned, who are notified of the execution after it is done and give 24 hours to claim the body if they choose to do so.

The current justice minister, Kunio Hatoyama, has gained notoriety as being unusually aggressive in implementing the death penalty. Nine inmates were hanged in 2007, or about double the yearly average for the proceeding decade. He also initiated the practice of publicizing the fact of an execution along with the names of those executed and their offenses.

Despite the secrecy surrounding capital punishment in Japan, individual cases do percolate into the public domain. A cause célèbre occurred in April when a court in Hiroshima sentenced a man to death, who had originally been sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a woman and her daughter. He had just turned 18 at the time of the crime. Previously no person under the age of 20 had been sentenced to death.

Public opinion polls, taken in recent years, show that more than 80 per cent of those responding favor capital punishment, which is higher even than in the Unites States and is a formidable obstacle for any abolitionist movement. The bipartisan Diet Members League for the Abolishment of Capital Punishment, led by Shizuka Kamei, has only 72 members out of more than 480 members of the Diet’s lower house.

But the dynamics of capital punishment are set to change, possibly dramatically, with the coming of the first jury trials one year from now. After May 21, 2009, serious crimes, such as murder or arson, will be tried before a panel of six “lay judges” chosen at random from lists of registered voters and the three professional judges that now hear cases, determine guilt or innocence and impose sentences. In other words, ordinary people will, for the first time, be called upon to make life or death decisions.

It is in anticipation of this major change the Diet (Japan’s parliament) has bestirred itself to for the first time in years to make major changes in the penal code. Two groups, one led by former chief cabinet secretary and LDP big wig Koichi Kato includes both proponents and opponents of the death penalty. The other is led by Shizuka Kamei, a former LDP member and prominent opponent of capital punishment.

Their common goal is to add a new penalty of life in prison without parole into the penal code. Currently, the strongest sentence outside of death that can be imposed is life with parole. The idea is to give judges, including the lay judges, an option other than death for the most serious crimes, crimes to which a jury might be reluctant to impose a sentence whereby the inmate might be freed in 10 years.

“I believe, and many lawmakers agree that the gap between death and life with parole is too big,” said Katsuei Hirawawa, a Diet member who supports capital punishment. Among the measure’s supporters are such powerful behind-the-scenes players such as former prime minister Yoshiro Mori and Yukio Hatoyama, once a leader of the opposition..With that kind of support it seems likely that the bill will pass.

Kamei wants to take this one step further to ensure that any death sentences must be unanimous among the nine judges and lay judges. If a case is decided by a majority, the sentence would automatically revert to life imprisonment without parole.

Japan’s relatively small band of abolitionists knows that an outright ban on hangings is not politically feasible now. But the beginnings of a jury system and the option to impose the maximum sentence short of death will, they hope, reduce the number of executions in Japan if not actually create an informal moratorium.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Warming Waters

On the eve of his five-day state visit to Japan, which began on May 6, China’s President Hu Jintao spoke of looking forward to a “warm spring for friendship between the two peoples.” It was a pleasant metaphor for a meeting in which both sides went overboard in a show of cordiality and a feeling of good will between these two Asian neighbors whose relations have been in the deep freeze for years.

The chill could be traced to China’s rising nationalism and to disagreements over the legacy of Japan’s wartime conduct in China during World War II, which was exacerbated by former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The shrine honors 2.5 million war dead including 14 Class A war criminals.

A thaw started in September 2006 when Koizumi’s successor, Shinzo Abe , visited Beijing within days of assuming office. The visit was reciprocated in April, 2007, by China’s Premier Wen Jiabao, and the good feeling were further extended when the current Prime Minister, Yasuo Fukuda, visited China last December.

The Abe government, however, undertook other initiatives which irritated Beijing, but also demonstrated Japan’s growing anxiety over its increasingly powerful neighbor. That included declaring that the fate of Taiwan was of strategic importance to Japan, whereas Beijing considers it strictly an internal affair. Tokyo also signed a security arrangement with Australia, its first such agreement besides the one with the United States.

There are reasons why this spring and summer represent a golden opportunity for the two nations to foster better relations and solve longstanding issues. Fukuda has made improving relations with Asian neighbors a major theme of his administration. But bedeviled by a divided Diet since last July when the opposition captured control of the upper house, his popularity has tumbled below 20 percent amid increasing talk that he may be replaced.

The gloss of a successful summit does not seem to have boosted the popularity of the beleaguered Japanese premier either. His immediate goal is to hang on to power so that he can host the G-8 summit meeting, which is being held this July in a resort on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. If Fukuda lost power he would most likely be replaced by the more nationalistic former foreign minister Taro Aso.

Hu’s personal position as China’s leader is unassailable, but his country is on the defensive at the moment because of its handling of the Olympic torch progression. After the Olympic Games are over, China may be in a less accommodating mood. This is especially true if Beijing feels humiliated by boycotts or other anti-Chinese demonstrations.

To the great relief of the Japanese, Hu took pains not to delve deeply into sensitive historical issues. For his part, Fukuda played down China’s troubles in Tibet as much as he could without looking utterly craven to the public and the conservatives in his party. There was little concrete progress reported on specific bilateral issues, ranging from the near term panic in Japan over poisoned dumplings imported from China to long-running issues, such as boundary/resource development dispute in the East China Sea.

Concerning the latter, Tokyo and Beijing each claim exclusive economic zones in the area containing the oil and gas reserves. China National Offshore Oil Corporation started production in the Chunxiao field – which is near the disputed area – in 2006, prompting Japanese fears that the Chinese were siphoning off gas from their side of the border.

The undersea oil and gas reserves in the East China Sea, while valuable, are not hugely significant for countries as big as Japan and China. But nationalistic feelings are intertwined with resources decisions and a sense that if any ground is given - on either side – even ground undersea – it will be a weakness that can be exploited in other areas.

On the boundary dispute there were hints of a deal to allow for joint development of this gas field, which is located in waters midway between Shanghai and Okinawa. That would obviously form a precedent for joint development of the other East China Sea fields such as the Kashi/Tianwaitian and Asunaro/Longjing fields and any other underwater deposits.

The official statement did not go beyond generalities, but it is understood that the two sides will meet soon to discuss how to fund the joint development and how to distribute the profits. They hope to reach an agreement before the Group of Eight meeting. Fukuda has invited China, which is not a member, to send observers to the meeting.

“There was great progress on the issue of natural resource development in the East China Sea and bright signs of a resolution came into sight in this long-running dispute. We’ll decide on the details and reach an agreement as soon as possible,” said a cabinet statement. But Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura added a note of caution. “The details still cannot be made public. That is to say, we have not yet reached a complete agreement.”

The current thaw may not last long past the summer because it is, in part, a product of Beijing’s desire not to do anything that would spoil the Beijing Olympic Games, in which it has invest an enormous amount of prestige. After that more potentially antagonistic interests will probably reassert themselves. That’s because China growing self-confidence, assertiveness and expanding military, power inevitably spawn a greater sense of nationalism – and vulnerability – in Japan.

China and Japan need to flesh out the details of the proposed agreement over exploiting gas reserves in the East China Sea before the chills winds blow and the current climate of good will sours once again, as it might after the Olympic Games conclude and should the current Japanese premier be replaced with a more nationalistic leader.