Most people in Japan appear to agree with the death penalty, especially in the case of shocking crimes.
Yet this position leaves Japan at odds with the approach of most developed countries. It also associates Japan with places where the death penalty is used frequently, including China, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan.
This week, Japan’s Ministry of Justice announced that the leader of the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) sect Shoko Asahara (real name Chizuo Matsumoto), 63, and six of his closest associates were executed by hanging in Tokyo.
The cult was infamous for its sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo Metro system in 1995, which killed 13 people and injured thousands more. The incidents profoundly shocked Japan, which has a very low crime rate.
In this particular case – Japan’s most notorious terrorist attack – there seems to have been little dismay among the general public that the cult members were put to death in prison.
Some time ago, the Japan Times ran an article about the death penalty which said that a government survey taken in 2014 suggested that 80 percent of people favour capital punishment. I have often challenged the value of such surveys in the Japanese media but I know that is rare to find people who are strongly opposed to the death penalty.
Yet, outside Japan one can hear voices of concern. Immediately after the recent hangings, the German government’s human rights envoy, Baerbel Kofler, called the poison gas attack on the Tokyo’s subway a “terrible deed.”
But he but also said that ” despite the seriousness of this crime the German government stands by its principled rejection of the death penalty as an inhumane and cruel form of punishment that should be abolished worldwide.”
Germany, because of its terrible history under Adolf Hitler, is particularly strong on condemning state killing of any form. However, the death penalty is banned throughout Europe, with the exception of Belarus.
The Daily Telegraph explains that Japan is one of only 53 countries worldwide which still employs the punishment.
It quotes some disturbing information from Amnesty International about the situation in Asia. “China remained the world’s top executioner but the true extent of the use of the death penalty in China is unknown as this data is classified as a state secret.”
Amnesty says that leaving China aside, 23 countries carried out at least 993 executions last year (down on the 1,032 that took place in 2016, and the 1,634 that occurred in 2015).
Nevertheless, Japanese Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa has said that capital punishment is “unavoidable” for heinous crimes. Speaking at press conference following the executions, she said that she ordered them only after “careful consideration.”