Capital punishment in Japan: kill first, debate later

My reaction to yesterday’s executions in Japan? Here we go again ....

Japan’s habit of executing prisoners out of the blue like this conforms to a depressingly familiar pattern. Weeks, months or even years go by without an execution in the country, then one, two or even three people will be hanged on the same day. It’s only after the executions have been carried out that the media even get to report them.

If these latest hangings - of a 65-year-old woman called Sachiko Eto, and a 39-year-old man called Yukinori Matsuda - have a “sudden” feel about them in terms of media reporting, imagine what this means at the ground level, for the two people themselves. If the usual Japanese death row custom was followed, neither Eto or Matsuda would even have known that Thursday 27 September 2012 was to be the day of their death. Generally death row prisoners in Japan aren’t told this until the morning itself. Nor are their families. It’s … sudden death.

About the media reports ... some are noticeably skimpy. The Daily Mail, Sky News and the Huffington Post each have similar reports. It’s another sign of the rushed nature of the executions - journalists have had little time to gather wider information.

One of the fullest news stories is The Asahi Shimbun's. Here you can read that Eto, the first woman to be executed in Japan for 15 years, was convicted for her part in six “exorcism” murders, including where people were beaten to death with the heavy wooden sticks used in Taiko drumming. And there’s also information on Matsuda’s homicidal robberies, where he stole £1,000 and a watch.

Neither case sounds less than horrendous. But that doesn’t mean the grisly business of state-sanctioned killing is right … By Amnesty’s calculations 131 people are still on death row in Japan, all of whom are now considered to be at heightened risk of sudden execution (there’s info on how to try to get the Japanese Justice Ministry to stop that here).

One of the noteworthy things about these latest Japanese hangings is that they were authorised by the country’s justice minister Makoto Taki, the second set of executions he’s approved within the last two months. The 74-year-old Taki, only in the job since June, is actually about to step down. Earlier this week (25 September) he said he was “too old” for the job. He’s also recently been calling for a national debate on capital punishment in Japan. Isn’t it strange, then, to make this - momentous - decision over the fate of two people one of his last political moves? Kill first, debate later?

A debate though, would be good. Even better would be a moratorium on any further executions in the meantime. I’ve taken part in a few radio phone-in debates on capital punishment myself (most recently after Lord Tebbit floated the - very bad - idea of Britain bringing back hanging for people who murder police officers). Open debate is important and I think one that showed the Japanese people the true horror of capital punishment in their own country would make a lot of people there turn against it.

For instance, Makoto Taki might be too old to be Japan’s justice minister but he wouldn’t be too elderly to be executed. In fact he’s slightly younger than Hakamada Iwao, the man who’s already spent a staggering 44 years on Tokyo’s death row. Maybe Taki could speak out about the inhumanity of Iwao’s case before he leaves office?

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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