Shibata Yukinori (Jesuit Social Center, Tokyo)
During the year 2008 Japan executed 15 persons. I pray for the souls of the dead. The following is a list of the people executed last year:
* February 1: 3 persons (Matsubara Masahiko, Nago Keishi, Mochida Takashi)
* April 10: 4 persons (Nakamoto Katsuyoshi, Nakamura Masaharu, Sakamoto Masato, Akinaga Kaoru)
* June 17: 3 persons (Yamazaki Yoshio, Mutsuda Shinji, Miyazaki Tsutomu)
* September 11: (Mantani Yoshiyuki, Yamamoto Mineteru, Hirano Isamu)
* October 28: 2 persons (Kuma Michitoshi, Takashio Masahiro)

The Situation of Executions in Japan

Before 2006 it was normal to execute one or two persons at a time during the administration of a Minister of Justice except those who remained in office for less than a few months. Nevertheless, from October 31 2005 to September 25 2006, during the period of Mr. Sugiura Seiken, the then Minister of Justice, no executions were conducted. Mr. Sugiura refused to sign them because of his Buddhist believes.
On December 25 2006 his successor, Mr. Nagase Jinen, ordered the executions of 4 people. Ministry of Justice officials seemed to have forced the executions anomalously done on Christmas feasts, under the fear of a year past without them. Minister Nagase created a constant flow of executions having 3 or 4 people killed every 4 months. In April, 3 persons and in August, 4 more were executed.
During the one year period Mr. Hatoyama Kunio remained in office executions were conducted to a fast pace of 3 or 4 people every 2 months. In December 2007, 2 persons, in February 2008, 3 persons, in April, 4 persons and in June, 3 more persons were executed. His successors, Mr. Yasuoka Okiharu and Mr. Mori Eisuke inherited the same practice and 3 executions were conducted in September, with 2 more the next October. Minister Hatoyama at a press conference revealed the names of the executed persons and their crimes. This was understood as an answer to criticisms on the secrecy of the Ministry of Justice that, up to now, only declared the fact of the executions without revealing names and other details.
Background of the Increase of Executions
What is the cause for the rapid increase of executions? One factor is the increase in death sentences and death row inmates.
Statistics show that, from 2004 the death row inmates have greatly increased. The common opinion is that the Public Prosecutors' Department has adopted the policy of demanding an increase of death sentences, since the late 1990s (in reality, sometimes the sentence in the second trial is life imprisonment, and the Prosecutor demands death sentence in the final appeal). On the other hand, the executions had been reduced and the numbers of death row inmates increased so that by 2007 they were over 100. Mass media has been reporting on that and the image Japan offers is that of a big country with death punishment. From now on, as the trials of the Subway sarin crime continue the prospects are that the number of death sentences will increase. And it looks like the Ministry of Justice will keep the numbers of death row inmates to less than 100, thus executions will be normally conducted at times fixed ahead.
Besides that, the introduction of the system to include the victims of crimes in the trials and the beginning of the Lay Judge system are all related to the increase of death sentences. As a result of a reaction to the clear lack of past support for the victims, there is nowadays an overstress on feeling pity for the victims. At the same time, people attacking the criminals go as far as to deny them the right to demand a lawyer, remarking that the defense of criminals is not the job of lawyers. And again, at recent trials the criteria for death sentences have been expanded, so that when the Lay Judge system is launched, the decision on serious crimes that require death sentences will not stop on "guilty" or "not guilty," but will proceed to give a reasonable sentence. Thus, the intention seems to be to bring down the criteria for deciding on death sentences.

International Public Criticism
Public international criticism is mounting up on the judiciary. At the UN Committee against Torture in 2007, the following remarks on the Japanese system for death punishment were made. 1. Restrictions on correspondence and visits to death row inmates, 2. Lack of a mandatory exercise of right of appeal (no matter criminals lack the will to make a higher appeal, the appeal should be made), 3. Rarely executions are withheld because of amnesty or retrials, 4. Executions of death row inmates with mental disease take place, 5. Commutation of a death sentence seldom occurs.
At its General Session (November 2008) the Human Rights Committee on International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights gave the following statement: "Regardless of opinion polls, the State party (Japan) should favorably consider abolishing the death penalty and inform the public, as necessary, about the desirability of abolition."
Astonishingly enough, on October 28, just 3 days before the statement was given Japan conducted executions. The Human Rights Committee was greatly challenged. A delegation from the Council of Europe that has abolished death sentence made also special remarks on death sentences during its recent visit to Japan, but the Japanese government insists that "public opinion" supports them and does not even show a small gesture to think of abolishing death punishment. On this issue, Japan is internationally isolated.

Citizens' Movements
In contrast to the attitude of the Japanese government citizen organizations are in a critical mood. Forum 90, a network of national organizations for the abolition of death punishment, conducts public protests at the constituencies of Ministers of Justice whenever executions take place and in April of last year organized a massive conference of 1,000 people with a famous writer, Henmi Yo. And again, on October 11, the World Day for the abolition of Death Penalty, led a gathering of 200 people, under the motto "From the death row inmates to you" and made an impact by announcing the answers of 77 death row prisoners to a survey done in jails. Amnesty International Japan then organized a public demonstration.
The religious communities' Network "Stop the Death Penalty" that has its liaison office in our Center organized 2 seminars for the abolition of death penalty, one in June with Mori Tatsuya as speaker (100 participants) and the second one in November with Sakagami Kaori (45 participants). Again, on September 4, a prayer meeting for the abolition of death penalty was held with 40 participants. Moreover, in February worrying about the continuation of further executions, the same Network made a public statement with the approval of the religious communities demanding an immediate stop to all executions. Now, a public statement with the approval of the religious individuals is also prepared.
On the other hand Amnesty and the Center for Prisoners' Rights launched in July the "We Can Do without Death Penalty" Campaign, targeting young people and NGOs working for peace issues and against poverty. In July last year, they held an opening meeting at the Diet Members' Office Building and during the months of October and November participated in the antipoverty movements. On December 14 they organized a public symposium with 120 participants inviting activists against death penalty from the Philippines and Japanese researchers on antipoverty issues. On November 6 they organized a public demonstration in front of the House of Representatives to protest the executions conducted on October 28.
Moreover, in February 2008 the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission established a working group for the Abolition of Death Penalty of which I am also a member. In July, a conference was held, with Fr. Llompart SJ as speaker, to inaugurate the new working group. About 60 persons participated. In September, at the General conference of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission gathered in Osaka the group held its meeting on the abolition of death penalty with 45 participants, at which Fr. J. Masia had the keynote address.
In this way, besides the activities of citizens' movements, the introduction of the Lay Judge system is providing a number of opportunities for the mass media to inform the general public on the issue of death penalty. On the other hand, the Ministry of Justice remains in an attitude of silently continuing with the regular executions. Basic policy thinking is lacking on how to handle Japan's criminal code and what kind of reform policies should be adopted to prevent crimes.
Japanese society should stop regular executions and rethink the issue of death penalty. Do executions make society safer? Do they constitute the only way to console the families of the victims? Can we do it without death penalty? Just because in our times the weight of life is rather light, I would like to aim towards a society where everybody could live peacefully with others.
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