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Japan Needs a Frank Debate About Capital Punishment

Mori Tatsuya [Profile]


Japan is one of the few developed countries to still have the death penalty. Documentary filmmaker Mori Tatsuya looks at the issue of capital punishment and tries to answer the question of why 80% of the Japanese populace supports judicial executions.

Choosing Who Lives and Dies

In July 2016, Japan was shocked by the stabbing deaths of 19 residents of a disabled care facility in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture. Public outrage swelled when a letter surfaced that was written by the perpetrator, a former employee of the facility, shortly before the incident. In this, he brashly declared that killing the mentally disabled helped minimize misery and that his actions were for the good of Japan and world peace. People across Japan condemned the killer for his eugenic thinking, proclaiming that all life has meaning and that no person has the right to choose who should live and who should die.

I agree that all human life is precious. It defies being ranked or quantified. Yet, if the public outcry we heard after the Sagamihara murders is to be believed, then I am obliged to point out that Japanese society remains willfully ignorant of the eugenic undertones of capital punishment.

The death penalty is the intentional and unnatural taking of human life that a court of law has judged to no longer have meaning or value. In Japan there is broad public support for the system, with more than 80% of citizens approving of judicial executions.

What is important to consider here is not that there is capital punishment in Japan, but why so many people in the country avert their eyes to the reality it represents. People, of course, are cognizant that Japan enforces the death penalty. However, they only give it passing recognition. Hardly anyone in their daily lives ever stops to consider how an inmate is actually put to death, what passes through their mind at the end, or how they spend their final days. More significantly, very few people ever contemplate what having the death penalty means to society.

Aum Shinrikyō on Death Row

For many years my interest in capital punishment was the same as most other Japanese. I felt it was a just and fair punishment for a person who had committed the grave crime of murder. I never questioned why a person who had taken another’s life should also die. My confidence began to waver, however, after I interviewed six leaders of Aum Shinrikyō sitting on death row while I was shooting a documentary about the cult. As I sat and talked with these individuals the reality that I was speaking with people who were waiting to be killed gradually sank in.

Of course, all of us will die someday. Perhaps it will be in an accident, from illness, or simply due to old age. However, these were not to be the fate of the six men I sat speaking to through thick, transparent acrylic panels. These individuals were slated to be legally murdered.

Each of the cult leaders I interviewed said they regretted what they had done in the name of religious fanaticism. Many choked back tears, saying that it was only fair when considering how family members of victims must feel that they too should be killed.

I met with them many times. We also exchanged letters. When we talked, their words were not always those of regret. There were times when we joked and smiled. When I misunderstood a particular detail of their crime one might shout reproachfully, “It wasn’t like that at all, Mori!” In short, these men were normal human beings. In some respects you could even say they were kinder and more genuine and upright than many people I had met.

Somehow I could not make sense of it. It is a sin to kill. These men had broken this fundamental human law, and as punishment they would be legally put to death. The logic defied me. I could not understand why they had to die or why society seemed justified in killing them.

This experience led me to begin reporting on capital punishment. In my work I interviewed a wide variety of people and pondered countless aspects as I struggled to gain an understanding of the issue. After more than two years of reporting, I compiled my experiences and thoughts into the book Shikei (Capital Punishment).

Allow me to begin with my conclusion: there is no one overriding, logical argument that justifies the death penalty. Japanese who are in favor of capital punishment like to cite its effectiveness in deterring crime. By this logic, then, one would expect public safety in the two-thirds of the world’s nations that have abolished the death penalty to be in decline. The statistics, however, do not clearly bear this out. In fact, sociological research overwhelmingly shows the death penalty serves no significant function as a crime deterrent.

Many advocates of abolishing capital punishment point to the risk posed by false convictions. Proponents of the system, however, argue that such risks exist for all forms of criminal punishment and that abolishing the death penalty based on such a premise would effectively undermine the very foundation of the criminal justice system.

This is a false argument as the two punishments could not be more different. Incarceration restricts a criminal’s freedom, whereas capital punishment results in their death. While behind bars there is hope that an offender can be rehabilitated and eventually rejoin society. Executing a prisoner eliminates any such chance. Imagine a legal system where the punishment for breaking a person’s arm was to break the arm of the perpetrator. This would be no different than the eye-for-an-eye reprisals of the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi and would hardly be compatible with the spirit of modern jurisprudence. Yet the death penalty is the lone form of criminal punishment that is still based on this ancient idea of retributive justice. Its finality—once carried out a prisoner can never be freed if later found innocent—gives the potential of wrongful conviction weightiness far beyond that of other punishments.

Out of Consideration for Victim’s Families

Ultimately, many death penalty advocates do not rely on logical arguments, but base their position on the feelings of the family of victims. When a heinous killing occurs in Japan, the media is quick to play up the bitterness and hatred of the victim’s relatives toward the attacker. Exposed to this emotionally charged coverage, readers and viewers naturally feel sympathy toward the family, certain they would harbor the same thoughts if it was one of their own loved ones who had been murdered. Seen in this light, the death penalty serves to assuage the grief and anger of the victim’s family. Its justification, then, does not have a logical foundation, but is based on the raw desire for retribution.

Society, of course, must do all it can to help and support family members in dealing with such an incomprehensible act of violence as murder. There is an endless array of issues that families face, many of which can be addressed through social programs providing emotional and psychological care. However, supporting survivors and vengeance against the perpetrator do not occupy the same space. If maturity is responding to calamity in a calm and logical manner, then we must say that Japan has yet to grow up when it comes to considering the death penalty.

When I make the case for ending capital punishment I am often asked if I would feel the same if my own child had been killed. I generally preface my response by acknowledging the sheer impossibility of knowing how I would react, and then follow by saying that instead of the death penalty I would prefer to kill the perpetrator with my own hands.

Understandably, many people are taken aback by this and some even accuse me of having double standards. My response is that it is only natural to have double standards. If my child was killed, I would suffer from the crime too.

It is important that we try to empathize with the victim and their family. Yet it is also important that we acknowledge that we can never truly understand their thoughts and emotions without experiencing a similar trauma in our own lives.

Many family members of victims that I have met are wracked by guilt, even while harboring a strong desire for retribution. They endlessly berate themselves, asking such questions as “Why did I let you go out that night?” or “Why did I take my eyes off you?” These are the things that while kneeling alone in front of the family Buddhist altar they repeatedly wail to their lost loved ones. Carrying such remorse must be a living hell. People who support the death penalty, however, have no way of understanding such heartrending agony. Even as they tell me in voices quivering with emotion how they understand the feelings of the survivors, all they can really relate to is a banal desire for revenge.

The truth is that more than half of all murders in Japan are committed by family members. In such situations it is difficult for others in the family to speak out, and the media, too, tends to tone down its coverage. As a result, a majority of murders in Japan go unnoticed by the public, and very few people are even willing to imagine that surviving family members of these killings exist.

Again, if one is going to hold up the feelings of family members as a pillar for maintaining capital punishment, then should we not seek a lighter sentence if the victim has no immediate family? This is not logical, of course, but such crimes actually occur. If such exceptions were made, however, the very cornerstone of modern criminal justice would collapse. In short, emotion would defeat logic, a situation that would invite innumerable legal inconsistencies. The 80% of the population who support the death penalty choose to remain oblivious to this contradiction. Instead of honestly and logically considering the issue, they avert their eyes. This is where Japan stands today regarding capital punishment.

  • [2017.01.17]

Filmmaker and author. Professor, Meiji University School of Information and Communication. Born in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, in 1956. In 1988 released A, a documentary based on his reporting on the Aum Shinrikyō cult, followed by the sequel A2 in 2001. Won the  Kodansha Non-Fiction Award in 2011 for his book A3, also about the cult. Other works include the 2008 Shikei (Capital Punishment), and Shikei no aru kuni Nippon (Japan and the Death Penalty).

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