May 06, 2014
EDITORIAL: Hakamada case reinforces arguments against death penalty

The Japanese government can legally end a person’s life as punishment for a crime.

The Shizuoka District Court’s recent decision to order a retrial for a long-time death-row inmate reminded us afresh of the grave problems inherent in this capital punishment system.

Iwao Hakamada was sentenced to death over a 1966 quadruple murder. If his sentence had been carried out, the state would have committed a dreadful and irreparable mistake.

When he was released in late March after spending 48 years behind bars, Hakamada showed signs of mental illness. His condition highlighted the cruelties of living under the constant fear of being executed.


Five years have passed since the “saibanin” lay judge system was introduced in Japan. Under the system, randomly selected ordinary citizens are tasked to decide whether the accused should be given a death sentence.

More than 80 percent of citizens support the death penalty, according to a government survey.

But it can hardly be said that sufficient national debate has been held on the various issues concerning capital punishment.

Tough penalties should certainly be meted out for the unpardonable crime of murder. But is the death penalty the only possible option for such cases?

This is a question that all people living in a society that has adopted capital punishment should ask themselves.

Hakamada is certainly not the only victim of false accusations.

During the 1980s, four death-row inmates, including Sakae Menda, were acquitted in retrials. Since 2010, four prisoners serving life sentences have been acquitted in retrials, including Toshikazu Sugaya, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering a 4-year-old girl in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, in 1990.

These cases cannot be simply regarded as the regrettable results of sloppy criminal investigations in the old days. Just two years ago, four people were wrongfully arrested over online threats posted through their computers, which had been remotely manipulated. The four were later found innocent, but two of them had “confessed” to the crime.

Some people may think that innocent people would never confess to a crime. But those suspects were held for days after their arrest. They eventually succumbed to pressure from investigators who used leading questions and coercive tactics in the interrogations.

Humans prosecute and judge others under the criminal justice system, so it must be assumed that false accusations and wrongful convictions can occur.


Since the second half of the 20th century, many nations, mainly in Europe, have abolished capital punishment.

Among industrialized nations today, only Japan and some U.S. states still execute criminals. South Korea and Russia stopped conducting executions in the 1990s, effectively abolishing the death penalty.

Punishments against crimes are based on each country’s social culture, and simply following the global trend may not be the best answer.

Heinous crimes and people demanding severe punishments exist in any country. But many countries have chosen something other than capital punishment as the maximum penalty. Japan would probably be better off learning from their views and opinions.

Under another widely adopted approach, executions are suspended temporarily to allow a public consensus to emerge on the issue through in-depth debate.

In the Japanese government’s poll on the issue, more than half of the respondents who supported the death penalty cited concerns that abolishing capital punishment would lead to an increase in vicious crimes. But there is no clear proof that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime.

Many respondents also supported the notion that people who have committed heinous crimes should pay with their lives.

Although atrocious crimes spark broad and strong public demands for heavy punishments, death sentences are not handed down in all of these cases. The difficulty in dealing with the issue lies in the fact that a criminal penalty should not be regarded as merely the price for a crime.

The suffering is immeasurable among people who have lost family members and loved ones due to criminal activities. Their demands for severe penalties against the culprits are understandable.

But some bereaved families want the offenders to live out their lives making amends for the crimes they have committed.

It is impossible to punish criminals in a way that can satisfy all the diverse feelings of the victims and their families. What is important is to ensure that society provides support for crime victims and bereaved families.

In some abhorrent cases, families can no longer live in their homes where crimes have taken the lives of family members, and the perpetrators refuse to offer apologies let alone compensation for the suffering they caused.

Systems have been established in recent years to allow crime victims to take part in the trials of the suspects and to receive information on how the sentences have been carried out.

But much more needs to be done to ensure that crime victims can receive sufficient financial support and psychological care.

The government should consider long-term support to help crime victims deal with various difficulties.


Japan had 132 inmates on death row at the end of April.

Until seven years ago, the Justice Ministry didn’t publish the names of executed inmates or the locations where the executions were conducted. The ministry showed execution sites to Diet members and journalists, but such efforts for information disclosure proved temporary.

The government has been keeping strict control on information concerning executions. Such a show of public authority has serious implications. There is no denying that the government’s reluctance to disclose information about executions has hampered healthy public debate on capital punishment.

Another issue is whether hanging is an appropriate execution method. Nearly six decades have passed since the Supreme Court ruled that death by hanging did not violate the constitutional ban on cruel penalties. Even some experts who support capital punishment are calling for a review of this method.

A multipartisan group of lawmakers against the death penalty once considered proposing life imprisonment without parole as an alternative to capital punishment.

It has long been pointed out that the gap is too large between capital punishment and a life sentence, which is actually an “indefinite” prison term with the possibility of parole that may lead to the offender’s return to society.

The government has been avoiding asking citizens what they think of life imprisonment without parole as an alternative to the death penalty. But this is a question that the government itself should face head-on.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 6

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