Japan Data

The Capital Punishment Debate in Japan

Politics Society Culture

While the international trend is toward the abolition of capital punishment, Japan is one of the few advanced nations to maintain the death penalty. The Cabinet Office of Japan’s most recent survey shows that support for the death penalty remains high, with over 80% approval, while less than 10% support an end to capital punishment. Nevertheless, there is still considerable debate in Japan regarding the merits of maintaining the death penalty.

Low Support for Abolition

The Cabinet Office of Japan has conducted regular surveys on capital punishment since 1965, including every five years since 1989. The most recent survey was conducted in November 2014. The results, based on the 60.9% of responses received from the 3,000 adults surveyed, showed relatively little change in the very high overall support in Japan for the death penalty. It found that 80.3% of respondents were comfortable with the continuation of the death penalty, and only 9.7% supported abolishing capital punishment in Japan.

The survey delved into the reasons for respondents’ views on the death penalty. A plurality of those who wished to see the death penalty abolished indicated that they were concerned about errors in the legal process and wrongful conviction (46.6%), a significant problem given the irreversible nature of the sentence once carried out. Almost a third of them (31.6%) thought the use of the death penalty was unsavory and inhumane, even for convicted murders. A further 29.2% of the respondents thought that there would be no risk of heinous crimes increasing due to abolition of the death penalty. And 28.7% believed that because even the most brutal criminals could be rehabilitated, this justified avoiding the use of the ultimate punishment.

For the 80.3% of respondents who were comfortable with the death penalty, two particular reasons given stand out. A majority of respondents indicated that if the death penalty were abolished, then the families of the victims of heinous crimes would not get emotional closure (53.4%). A further 52.9% indicated simply that perpetrators of atrocious crimes should pay their moral debts with their lives. 

Split Views on Deterrent Value

When asked whether they thought the death penalty was a deterrent against crime, 57.7% of all respondents indicated that they thought that heinous crimes would indeed increase if the death penalty was abolished. Only 14.3% of respondents decisively thought that such crimes would not increase, while a further 28.0% either did not know or could not say definitively one way or another. Compared with the previous survey five years ago, however, it was notable that there was a 4.6 point decrease in the proportion of respondents who thought that heinous crimes would increase if the death penalty was abolished. There was also a corresponding 4.7 point increase in the number who decisively thought such crimes would not increase after abolition.

Respondents were also asked in the most recent survey whether they thought the death penalty should be abolished if a new system of life imprisonment without parole was introduced. While 37.7% indicated that abolition would be preferable if such a system was introduced, a majority of respondents (51.5%) indicated that it would still be better to keep the death penalty even if such a system was introduced. 

Government Support for Maintaining the Death Penalty

Given these results and general public attitudes, the Ministry of Justice takes the position that the death penalty should not be abolished in Japan. Because of this stance, the Japanese government has neither signed nor ratified the second optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This protocol was adopted in a 1989 United Nations General Assembly resolution and commits signatory nations to abolish the death penalty except in certain wartime situations.

There has been debate and political activism promoting the abolition of the death penalty in Japan, however. In 1994, a cross-party parliamentarians group was inaugurated to promote the abolition of capital punishment. The chairman of this parliamentary league is independent lawmaker and former National Police Agency official Kamei Shizuka, who has long been a vocal opponent of executions in Japan. As an alternative to the death penalty, this league has worked toward promoting the implementation of a lifelong incarceration penalty—which would not allow for parole, as all current imprisonment options do—to be applied to serious crimes.

Societal sentiments in Japan work against such activism, however. In particular, opinions that emphasize the rights of victims and the feelings of victims' relatives in the punitive process have attracted support since the start of this century. While there has been a consistent reduction in the number of crimes in Japan, as well as a reduction in the murder rate to the lowest ever level, the media coverage of heinous crimes, such as the murder of children, has frequently shaken Japanese society. This has led to increased public concern about such crimes and the maintenance of high levels of support for severe punishments like execution.

Resolving the Debate

The debate over the merits of the death penalty in any nation is bound up with various intrinsic religious, philosophical, and cultural attitudes. It is a complex and heavy subject, and forces in favor of and against abolition have battled over various aspects of the debate for hundreds of years. Indeed, there have been calls for the reinstitution of the death penalty even in countries where the death penalty has already been abolished. This in turn has elicited a strong pushback against such developments.

In Japan there is a profound divide between those in favor of and opposed to abolition. There are diverging perspectives on theories relating to life and punishment even among legal scholars and experts. The table below presents major elements of the domestic debate in Japan, organizing the arguments put forward by the sides in favor of and against abolishing the death penalty. It sets forth the fundamental differences in thinking and philosophy regarding the penalty and policies pertaining to the treatment of convicted felons in the Japanese context.

The Japanese Capital Punishment Debate

Fundamental philosophical orientation
Abolitionist • The death penalty is a cruel and inhumane punishment.
• The state should not have a role in the killing of citizens.
• Perpetrators of vicious crimes should spend the rest of their lives pursuing victim compensation and repentance.
Anti-abolitionist • Those who take the life of another have the responsibility to pay with their own life.
• Abolition of the death penalty prioritizes the life and rights of the murderer over thoser of the victim and therefore does not meet the requirements of justice.
Does the death penalty function as a deterrent?
Abolitionist • Humans are likely to continue to kill people whether or not the death penalty exists.
• It has no effect on people who have fallen into despair and are on a self-destructive path. It may even serve as an inducement to commit a crime for those who have already made up their mind to die.  
• No verifiable scientific evidence exists as to whether the death penalty functions as an effective deterrent against vicious crimes.
Anti-abolitionist • As a penalty for committing a crime, capital punishment serves as an obvious deterrent. The argument that it has no deterrent effect is not persuasive.
• The assertion that someone cannot be put to death no matter how many people they kill disregards the lives of the victims.
Wrongful conviction and false accusations
Abolitionist • There is always the possibility of false accusations. Executing someone on the basis of a false accusation is the ultimate injustice. 
• A life lost due to the death penalty based on a false accusation or wrongful conviction cannot be recovered.
Anti-abolitionist • In reality, the application of the death penalty in Japan only takes place in situations where there is 100 percent certainty.
• The issue of wrongful convictions can be dealt with by overhauling criminal proceedings in Japan. Increasing the use of court-appointed attorneys and pretrial discovery in the judicial process would address such concerns.
Consideration for victims and the feelings of bereaved families
Abolitionist • The death penalty does not exist for the victim. The sentiments of relatives can change over time based on changing circumstances.
• As demonstrated by European nations, generous and sympathetic support for bereaved families and the abolition of the death penalty are not mutually exclusive.
Anti-abolitionist • The death penalty can help achieve justice by relieving the sadness and anger of the victim or victim’s family in situations where a victim has been brutally violated and subjected to cruel treatment.
Rehabilitation of the criminal
Abolitionist • Even the perpetrators of heinous crimes can be rehabilitated.
Anti-abolitionist • The criminal’s sin and the need to take responsibility for one’s actions does not vanish even if the criminal can be rehabilitated. 
How should public opinion surveys be interpreted?
Abolitionist • Public opinion survey results are not a good reason to maintain the death penalty. Abolishing capital punishment is the international trend and Japan should respect international human rights law.
• Politicians should resist pandering to the public and instead should demonstrate leadership and move toward convincing citizens to support abolishing the death penalty.
Anti-abolitionist • Maintaining the death penalty is of fundamental interest to the public and public sentiment should be reflected in the decision to abolish the death penalty.
How should the international trend toward abolition be interpreted?
Abolitionist • This is not the time for Japan to be one of the few countries equivocating on the grounds of national conditions and public sentiment. Japan should respect international human rights law. 
• Countries that have abolished the practice may reject the extradition of fugitives to Japan by using the existence of the death penalty in Japan as a justification.
Anti-abolitionist • The death penalty debate should reflect the cultural and religious background of each country as well as the conscience of the citizenry, conditions surrounding crime, and the political situation. Every country should decide independently its own position on this complex issue.
Does the death penalty violate the Constitution?
Abolitionist • As Article 36 of the Constitution prohibits cruel punishment, the death penalty should be viewed as unconstitutional.
Anti-abolitionist • The Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty does not violate the Constitution.

A Split with the European Position

What are the recent international developments regarding the death penalty? According to a report released in 2014 by international human rights watchdog Amnesty International, 98 countries had completely abolished the death penalty as of 2013. This is an increase of 13 countries (up from 85) compared to 10 years ago. In addition, the number of nations actually carrying out executions decreased slightly from 25 to 22 during the same time frame. 

The implementation and presence of the death penalty varies regionally and by each nation, but we can discern some general features by reference to the Amnesty International report.

First, among the G8 nations, only Japan and the United States maintain the death penalty and carry out executions. Throughout the whole of the Americas, only the United States carries out executions. In the United States, the federal government still maintains the capital punishment, although the individual states vary in terms of the current legal situation regarding the use of the death penalty. Maryland became the eighteenth state to abolish the death penalty in May 2013. 

There are no executions carried out in Europe or in Central Asia. Among the 54 African Union nations, only 5 nations carry out executions (including Botswana, Nigeria, and Sudan), while 37 nations have legally or effectively abolished the death penalty. Among the 21 nations of the Arab League, 7 nations carry out executions (including Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia). Among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam use the death penalty. Globally, there are no executions in 173 of the 193 member countries of the United Nations.

A number of nations, including China, Vietnam, and Belarus, treat the number of executions carried out as a state secret. Although it is estimated that thousands of executions are carried out in China each year, Amnesty International has not published the figures for China since 2009. Furthermore, it is increasingly impossible to get accurate information for some nations due to state regulations or political unrest (including Egypt, Malaysia, North Korea, and Syria).

Looking at the data another way, we can see a tendency for nations with large overall populations to maintain the death penalty. Among the top 10 largest nations, eight countries use the death penalty. China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Japan all maintain the death penalty. Out of the 20 largest nations, 13 maintain the system, including Vietnam. As a percentage of total global population, over half of the world lives under a government where capital punishment is a legal prerogative.

Aside from in nations like Japan and the United States, where transparency laws mandate the public release of such information, getting accurate data on the number of death penalty sentences, executions, and prisoners on death row can be very difficult. Because of this, the United Nations and other concerned organizations can only estimate the number of executions.

(Originally written in Japanese by Harada Kazuyoshi of the Nippon.com editorial department and published on March 5, 2015. Banner photo: Supporters gather at JR Hamamatsu Station on May 27, 2014, to welcome Hakamada Iwao back to Hamamatsu for the first time in 48 years since his 1966 arrest. Hakamada did not waver in asserting his innocence despite the death penalty being applied to his conviction for arson, robbery, and murder. In March, 2014, Hakamada had his execution and detention suspended pending a retrial. He was subsequently released from prison. © Jiji.)

death penalty crime Amnesty International deterrence UN Covenant on Human Rights