The Japanese Way of the Rope

The sound of Buddhist priests chanting sutras is clearly audible on the tape along with some muted conversation between the inmate and his executioners. Then there is a loud thump when the trap door is sprung and finally just the sound of the rope creaking.

This chilling radio broadcast of a hanging that took place somewhere in Japan in 1955 was broadcast earlier this month over the Nippon Cultural Broadcasting System as part of an hour-long documentary program called “Shikei Shikkou” or “Execution of a Death Sentence.” In addition to interviews with former guards, prosecutors, and anti-capital punishment advocates, the program included the five minute segment from a “training” tape that it obtained from one of Japan’s seven prisons with a gallows (it didn’t say which one or how it obtained the tape.)

The issue provides an unusual glimpse into one of the more secretive aspects of Japanese life, the manner in which it administers the death penalty. It is one seemingly at odds with its culture and belied by the fact that Japan has one of the developed world’s lowest homicide rates, with only 0.49 per 100,000 people, compared with the United States at 4.28 per 100,000. Japan and the the United States are the only major democracies to continue to practice capital punishment. The country is known to have executed nine individuals in 2007, well below the 42 killed in the US.

But the dynamics of capital punishment are set to change, possibly dramatically, with the coming of Japan’s first jury trials a year from now. After May 21, 2009, serious crimes such as murder or arson will be tried before a panel of six “lay judges” chosen at random from lists of registered voters and the three professional judges that now determine guilt or innocence and impose sentences. In other words, ordinary people will, for the first time, be called upon to make life or death decisions.

It is in anticipation of this major change that the Diet, Japan’s parliament, has bestirred itself to for the first time in years to make major changes in the penal code. Two groups, one led by former chief cabinet secretary and LDP bigwig Koichi Kato, include both proponents and opponents of the death penalty. The other is led by Shizuka Kamei, a former LDP member and prominent opponent of capital punishment.

Their common goal is to add a new penalty of life in prison without parole into the penal code. Currently, the strongest sentence outside of death is life with parole. The idea is to allow for an option other than death for the most serious crimes, crimes for which a jury might be reluctant to impose a sentence that might see the inmate freed in 10 years.

“I believe, and many lawmakers agree, that the gap between death and life with parole is too big,” said Katsuei Hirawawa, a Diet member who supports capital punishment. Among the measure’s supporters are such powerful players as former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Yukio Hatoyama, once a leader of the opposition. With that kind of support it seems likely that the bill will pass.

Kamei wants to go one step further to ensure that death sentences must be unanimous among the nine judges and lay judges. If a case is decided by a majority, the sentence would automatically revert to life imprisonment without parole.

Many people, even in Japan, are unaware that the country has capital punishment, and that’s the way the government likes it. No messy vigils outside the prison gates, no questions in parliament, no dramatic last-minute appeals to the governor – just the impersonal workings of the state.

Of course, people in Japan go on trial, are convicted and sentenced to death in open court. But then they disappear into the dark maw of Japan’s penal system where, after appeals are exhausted, the prisoner just waits until one morning guards show up and tell him, “Today is the day.” That usually takes six to seven years.

There also appears to be little willingness on the part of the Japanese authorities to acknowledge that they might have made a mistake. According to one Japanese study, of 53 prisoners on death row in December 2000, 25 claimed they were totally or partly innocent of the charges against them. In retrials, four prisoners were found to be innocent. That stopped the retrials. Since that time, none have been permitted.

After being notified that his time is up, the inmate has perhaps an hour to compose himself, write a short farewell note, have a cigarette and then be handcuffed, hooded and swiftly hanged. Aside from the warden and some guards there are no witnesses.

And no public notices either. It is only recently that the Ministry of Justice has issued terse press releases stating that an execution has taken place and only since last December, under the current justice minister, has the ministry released the names of the condemned and the crime they were convicted of.

In the past, journalists had to sniff out the story using investigative reporting techniques, usually contacting or hearing from the family of the condemned, who are notified of the execution after it is done and given 24 hours to claim the body if they choose to do so.

Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama has gained notoriety for being unusually aggressive in implementing the death penalty. The nine inmates hanged in 2007 were about double the yearly average for the previous decade. He also initiated the practice of publicizing the fact of an execution along with the names of those executed and their offenses.

Despite the secrecy surrounding capital punishment in Japan, individual cases do percolate into the public domain. A cause célèbre occurred in April when a court in Hiroshima sentenced to death a man who had originally been sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a woman and her daughter. He had just turned 18 at the time of the crime.

Public opinion polls in recent years show that more than 80 per cent of those responding favor capital punishment, a rate higher even than in the Unites States and a formidable obstacle for any abolitionist movement. The bipartisan Diet Members League for the Abolishment of Capital Punishment, led by Kamei, has only 72 out of more than 480 members of the Diet’s lower house.

Japan’s relatively small band of abolitionists knows that an outright ban on hangings is not politically feasible now. But the beginnings of a jury system and the option to impose the maximum sentence short of death will, they hope, reduce the number of executions in Japan if not actually create an informal moratorium.

Eds: This story was modified after publication to reflect more valid execution and homicide figures.