Japan, along with the USA, is one of the few democratic countries in the world to still practice a retentionist capital punishment policy. The recent executions of thirteen cult members in July 2018, has highlighted both the civil and broader issues associated with the death penalty as a form of punishment.
Aum Shinrikyo are the doomsday cult established in the 1980s. They were held responsible for the deaths of thirteen civilians and the physical injuries of 1,300 others in 1995, when sarin poison was released on five busy commuter trains in Tokyo. All thirteen major cult figures involved in the coordination of the attack were informed of their impending execution only hours before, whilst families of the accused were informed after their hanging had taken place.
Although July signified the halfway point of 2018, the volume of executions to have taken place this year in Japan has already equalised that of the previous four years combined. Hence, 2018 has seen unprecedented levels of government sanctioned killings. It is difficult to conclude that the simultaneity of the executions is a result of the coninciding crime, as some of the accused were still awaiting feedback on their pleas of appeal. This raises questions about whether the sudden executions of the Aum members were ordered as an attempt to purge Japan of the heinous crimes that have taken place throughout Emperor Akihito’s rule before he abdicates in April 2019. Although impossible to objectively discern, the executions do unquestionably raise broader issues about the legitimacy of the Japanese death penalty and whether it is fulfilling its punitive goals.
In a poll conducted in 2013, it was estimated that 85.2% of Japanese citizens supported the death penalty. In contrast to the 54% of Americans that are in favour of capital punishment (Pew Research Center 2018), this is an astoundingly high figure despite the secrecy surrounding the practice.
A study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice in 2010 concluded that the most popular reason for Japanese support for capital punishment was deterrence. Whilst research into the Japanese death penalty is in its elementary stage, recurrent studies have been conducted in the USA to discern whether the sentence truly does deter similar crimes. Robert Brett Dunham, of the Death Penalty Information Center, published a comprehensive study in 2017 on homicide rates in US states following the particular state’s abolition of capital punishment. He found that murder rates did not rise and contrariwise have been falling throughout the last two decades regardless of a state’s retentionist or abolitionist stance.
Although the relatively small number of executions that take place annually make it difficult to make certain objective conclusions, these results do demonstrate that deterrence cannot tangibly be cited as a definitive legitimisation of the death penalty based on the evidence available.
So, what is the future for capital punishment in Japan? Carolyn Hole of the University of Oxford believes that the lack of a transnational pressure on Asian countries means that it is unlikely that change will occur anytime soon. She argues that whilst the pressure placed on the governments of the former Eastern bloc of Europe by the EU and the Council of Europe were fundamental in overseeing the abolition of the death penalty, The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has little or no influence over the policies of the dominating Asian countries. With such huge and unrelenting civil support for the death penalty in Japan and a lack of serious external pressure, it seems that Japan’s retentionist policy is here to stay.
Despite the Japanese government’s success in embodying the support for the preservation of the death penalty, should they not act as the example that they want to set? Shouldn’t a government be bound by the saying ‘practice what you preach’. Without wanting to sound too Hobbesian, is it not the duty of the government to protect its’ citizens, and shouldn’t this general principle apply to all citizens regardless of their criminal status? If a democratic government cannot be relied upon to protect citizens, then who can? The preservation of the death penalty globally represents a macabre reflection of the cruel punitive system of the past that we should seek to get away from.