Public skepticism on death penalty in Japan increases

News & Views - February 24th, 2014
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A new government study shows that public opinion on capital punishment in Japan has shifted, as the rate of executions under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has increased.

More Japanese are skeptical of the practice, says Mai Sato, a criminology researcher at Britain’s Oxford University who led the study.

“I think my survey can show that even if the government abolished the death penalty tomorrow, the people will be able to accept that,” she told AFP.

Sato surveyed 20,000 Japanese respondents, whom she divided into equal groups of those for, against and undecided on the issue. She then divided them into two sets: one group was given a detailed explanation of the execution process and its potential for miscarriages of justice, while the other group was not.

Results showed that in the first group, 36 percent supported retaining capital punishment compared to 46 percent in the second.

The latest government poll on the subject, back in 2009, showed 86 percent of those questioned supported the death penalty.

The new data was released amid continued pressure from rights groups, who say Japan should join most other advanced economies in abolishing the practice.

Campaign groups say the practice is “barbaric” because of the mental torture inmates go through as they wait years, even decades, in solitary confinement. Prisoners are also reportedly told that their death sentences will be carried out only a few hours before their execution.

Iwao Hakamada, who was convicted of murder in 1966, is believed to be the world’s longest serving death row inmate. Supporters say this has taken a toll on Hakamada’s sanity.

The release of these findings coincided with a week-long festival at the beginning of February, featuring films on the death penalty. A series of eight films from around the world played at a Tokyo cinema as well as an exhibition of paintings by some of Japan’s 129 death row inmates.

Akiko Takada, a spokeswoman for anti-death penalty group Forum 90, said the festival aims to rouse debate on the issue.

“In Japan, information about the death penalty is not publicly and widely available,” she said. “Despite that, executions are taking place.”

By Maesie Bertumen

Image: zpeckler/Flickr