Tuesday, August 5, 2008

"The Big Debate on the Death Penalty

"As civilization advances, cruelty retreats — or so humanists fondly believe. If it's true, does capital punishment have a place in a civilized, humane society? A consensus taking shape in most developed nations holds that it does not. Japan, with 13 executions in less than a year under former Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama and a reported 80 percent of the public supporting the extreme penalty, seems to be swimming against the current on this issue.

"The trouble is that civilization is not all sweetness and light. Its stresses and strains breed crime, and Japan lately is passing through a crime wave remarkable not so much for the number of criminals and victims — still relatively small — as for the repugnant nature of some of the crimes, the conspicuous features being sadistic sex and random mass murder.

"Is it cruel to execute the perpetrator of a grotesque crime? The question presses all the more urgently because the "lay-judge" system debuting next May will require ordinary citizens to deliver the life and death verdicts that until now have been the exclusive province of legal professionals.

"Hatoyama's apparently wholehearted endorsement of capital punishment has made him a controversial figure. The Asahi Shimbun recently dubbed him "Shinigami" — the god of death. Interviewed by Takashi Uesugi for the August issue of the monthly Shincho 45, Hatoyama said, "They can call me that if they like, but with respect to both the criminal facing execution and the victim's family, it's a tactless remark."

"A death sentence, he went on, is handed down not by a god but by a court, and furthermore, "I am in communication with the families of victims, and they, almost without exception, want the death sentence carried out."

""And how do you feel about authorizing an execution?" asked Uesugi.

""I am aware," replied Hatoyama, "that it involves taking a person's life and that it's an irreversible act. How do I feel? Troubled, pained . . . [But] I do it for the sake of justice in a country under the rule of law."

"One who wouldn't buy that argument is Hosei University historian Yuko Tanaka. Writing in Shukan Kinyobi (July 18), Tanaka links capital punishment to warrior culture. Her implication is that it is out of place in peacetime. The Heian Period (794-1185) knew neither war nor execution. Both filled the void when Heian decayed in the 12th century, and for centuries thereafter the death sentence, even for lesser crimes like theft, was a matter of course.

"The Edo Period (1603-1868) represented a barely sustainable paradox — a country at peace under a warrior administration. Oddly enough, writes Tanaka, it never developed a penal prison system. Such prisons as there were held suspects awaiting verdicts or criminals awaiting sentencing. The sentence might be death (by crucifixion, for example), or exile, or flogging. But it was almost never a specified period of incarceration. The concept was scarcely known, and facilities all but nonexistent. Severity generally won the day in the name of public order. Word of fearful punishments got around, keeping a terrified populace in line.

"We like to think we've made progress since then. "Crime," writes Tanaka, "is not only the individual's problem — it's society's problem as well. For that very reason, our approach to reducing crime should not be killing those who harm us." On the contrary, in the interest of learning what makes them tick, "we should keep violent criminals alive and conduct thorough research on them."

"A peculiar — and peculiarly cruel, it has been said — feature of Japanese capital punishment is that the condemned criminal waits on death row with no idea when the sentence will be carried out. The suspense can be unbearable, as prison guards know very well.

""I'll kill you, I'll kill you all!"

"Prison official Masahiko Fujita, 62, has served as a guard on death row, and recalls for Asahi Geino (July 31) a typical prisoner outburst.

""I'll kill you, and get another trial, and as long as the trial lasts they can't execute me!"

""You can't imagine what it does, psychologically, to send a man to his death," says Fujita, "no matter how appalling the condemned person's crime."

"A rope is attached to the prisoner's neck. At the push of a button the floor disappears beneath his or her feet. Five guards push five buttons; no one knows which is the active one.

"Emotional distress aside, Fujita favors the death penalty. Its opponents, he says, "should keep in mind the high rate of recidivism, and then consider why people are condemned to death in the first place.""

By Michael Hoffman, Japan Times (8/3/2008), Link to article (last visited 8/5/2008)

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