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.


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