Sunday, April 08, 2007

Fellow Outliers: Japan & the United States

The Japan Times offers a fascinating look at how Japan's death penalty is implemented. "According to Amnesty International, 102 people -- 97 men and 5 women -- are now waiting to be hanged in one of Japan's seven execution chambers -- the largest number in over half a century."

After breakfast on Christmas Day, 2006, three Japanese pensioners and a middle-aged former taxi driver were given an hour to live. The men were told to clean their cells, say their prayers and write a will. Yoshio Fujinami, 75, scribbled a note to his supporters before he was taken to the gallows in the Tokyo Detention Center in a wheelchair.

"I cannot walk by myself, I am ill and yet you still kill such a person," he wrote. "I should be the last person executed."

Also struggling to walk, partially blind Yoshimitsu Akiyama, 77, had to be helped by prison guards to the execution chamber. Both men were still appealing their convictions for murder.. . .

All four were hanged with military precision at three different prisons within minutes of each other; blindfolded, handcuffed and bound at the ankles as a 3-cm-thick rope was slipped around their necks and tightened before a trapdoor opened beneath their feet.

The men had a collective age of 260, and some had waited a quarter of a century for the hangman's rope, fearful -- since the condemned in Japan are given no warning of their impending execution -- that every day would be their last. By the time families, friends, lawyers and supporters were told, their bodies were already growing cold in prison morgues. Relatives -- if the men had any, and if they cared -- were given 24 hours to pick up the corpses.

Buried towards the end of the story is the reality of the death penalty for both the States and Japan, media and perception drives the arguments for more death sentences rather than the facts:

"There has been a clear tendency since the year 2000 for a rise in the number of death sentences, a phenomenon related to the crime situation," says Makoto Teranaka of Amnesty International Japan.

"The Police Agency repeatedly emphasizes that serious crime is worsening, but the statistics don't show this. What is true is that the police have made more new crimes, such as stalking, and that media coverage has enormously expanded, so we have a kind of moral panic, with people talking about crime much more."

Teranaka sees the death penalty as a "symbolic" issue. "The government is using the image of rising crime to introduce its own methods to control the social order," he said -- adding that he fears that the number of executions will continue to rise as a result.

Both countries are:

bucking a worldwide abolitionist trend, with 128 countries having scrapped the death sentence, including the Philippines and Cambodia, and South Korea and Taiwan debating abolition. Moreover, support for state killings is increasing in Japan. A 2005 government poll found that, for the first time, the number of Japanese people in favor of the death penalty topped 80 percent -- a rise of over 23 percent since 1975. Just 6 percent wanted the system abolished.

Why is Japan swimming against the tide? Activists cite a lack of debate. "There is no discussion about this in the media," says Nobuto Hosaka, secretary-general of the Parliamentary League for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. "Even in the Diet, the death penalty is something of a taboo because most lawmakers know the abolitionist cause is unpopular. It has become a vicious circle: Politicians don't discuss it and the public doesn't hear the abolitionist case, so the politicians continue to avoid it."

Hosaka says the Christian lobby in most other countries, including in European states, the Philippines and South Korea, has been a major factor in moving those countries toward abolition, despite often strong public support for executions.

"Religious groups in Japan cooperate in the death penalty," he said.

The Asia Death Penalty blog has long piece updating the situation across the Sea of Japan (the East Sea) in China. ADP quotes Chinese officials as stating that "[o]ur country still cannot abolish the death penalty but should gradually reduce its application."

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