- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

TOKYO — On Christmas morn- ing last month, four death row inmates awoke to be told they would be taken to the gallows soon.

A Justice Ministry official confirmed the number of inmates executed, but, as in the past, declined to say who they were or where they were hanged. The government had not informed the inmates and their families before the executions.

Civic groups identified the four as Yoshimitsu Akiyama, Yoshio Fujinami, Michio Fukuoka and Hiroaki Hidaka. Akiyama, 77, was the oldest, and Fujinami, 75, was in a wheelchair. Both were in the process of appealing for a retrial, their supporters say.

To avoid a debate on capital punishment, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party did not want the hangings to be carried out while the national Diet was in session. The Japanese legislature closed on Dec. 19.

The executions were the first to be carried out since September 2005 because Justice Minister Seiken Sugiura, a devout Buddhist, had not signed any execution orders during his 11 months in the post. Jinen Nagase became justice minister in late September.

More to the point, the Justice Ministry was reportedly concerned that the number of death row inmates was nearing 100.

“If we allow the number to exceed 100, the system will break down,” a high Justice Ministry official told the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second-largest daily of five circulated nationwide.

“We absolutely wanted to avoid ending the year with zero executions,” the official added.

Japan had carried out executions every year since 1994. No prisoner was put to death while Megumu Sato, also a Buddhist, was justice minister from 1989 to 1993. Japan and the United States are two of the few major industrial countries that still impose death sentences.

The ministry “complied with the law and its judgments were careful and proper,” Mr. Nagase said the day after the Christmas executions, which provoked criticism at home and abroad.

“This retrograde step runs counter to the universal protection of human rights and is at odds with the international trend away from the use of the death penalty,” Irene Khan, secretary-general of Amnesty International, said last week in an open letter to Mr. Nagase.

“The death penalty has already been abolished in Cambodia, Nepal, East Timor and recently in the Philippines,” she wrote, adding that South Korea and Taiwan may follow suit.

By the numbers

According to Amnesty International, 128 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. Of the 69 that still use the death penalty, only a few carry out executions in any one year.

In Japan, the number of death sentences per year was two to seven until 2003. But death sentences surged to 14 in 2004, and 20 last year.

Mr. Nagase said he sees no reason to abolish the death penalty, because about 80 percent of the Japanese people have no objection to capital punishment. But opponents say such surveys are manipulated.

In polls carried out by the prime minister’s office in 2004, 81.4 percent of respondents chose the response,”Depending on circumstances, the death penalty may be unavoidable,” and 6 percent said, “The death penalty should be abolished in any and all circumstances.”

Japanese critics of capital punishment argue that sensational coverage of some crimes — especially those committed by teenagers or in which the victims are children — contributes to the political climate, giving the public the false impression that security has been deteriorating and the number of crimes has been increasing.

They say that politicians and bureaucrats are quick to take political advantage of the supposed crime increase but that statistics show otherwise.

A symbolic move

Koichi Hamai, a law professor at Ryukoku University in Kyoto and former Justice Ministry official, who employs crime figures in his studies, has concluded that “objective statistics show deterioration of public safety is not the case.”

“What has been rife are lies such as ‘the increasingly atrocious nature of crime’ and ‘increasing penalties by seriously regarding the feelings of victims’ families.

“These are products of collusive ties between news media and public authorities,” said Kenichi Asano, a journalism professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto and former Jakarta, Indonesia, bureau chief for the Kyodo News Service.

“As politicians, government and the media demand harsher penalties, the death penalty has become its symbol,” said Makoto Teranaka, secretary-general of Amnesty International Japan.

The 1995 poison-gas attacks on Tokyo subway trains carried out by the Aum Shinri Kyo cult, which killed 12 and sickened thousands, halted the growing movement to abolish the death penalty, Mr. Asano said.

In fact, few people dare voice opposition to the death sentences handed down to the cult’s members.

‘A low profile’

While more death sentences are pronounced, little information is provided by the government regarding the death penalty and death-row inmates, critics say. Visits and correspondence to prisoners on death row are severely restricted.

“We have repeatedly asked the Justice Ministry to disclose information, but they don’t,” said Akiko Takada of Forum 90, a Tokyo-based organization that urges Japan’s ratification of a global treaty to abolish capital punishment. “Unless information is disclosed, the discussion won’t start.”

In a 2003 report titled “The Death Penalty in Japan: A Practice Unworthy of a Democracy,” the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) also took issue with “the secrecy surrounding death row inmates and their hanging — under the erroneous pretext that it safeguards their dignity — contributes to making executions even more inhuman or degrading.”

The FIDH is “deeply concerned by the fact that the administration of the death penalty in Japan severely contravenes the very notion of democracy in Japan,” the report concluded.

Most Japanese do not seem aware of such criticism or even of the nation’s capital punishment itself, because major press and broadcast outlets rarely provide opportunities to discuss death-penalty issues. So it is not surprising that Japanese government ministers and political leaders kept a low profile, even when the executions of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and two of his co-defendants triggered worldwide criticism for the way they were handled.

“Japan’s major media fail to report discussions abroad on capital punishment,” Mr. Asano said. “Most people are not aware that nearly 130 countries have done away with the death penalty, and that Japan is one of few developed countries that still have capital punishment, for which Japan is criticized by the United Nations and the European Union.”

Foes of the death penalty seek to resume a national dialogue on the issue and urge the government to impose a moratorium on executions.

“We need to adopt a moratorium,” said Mr. Teranaka of Amnesty International Japan. “And the public should grasp what is really going on in society and start to discuss whether the country needs capital punishment.”

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