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Sunday, Jan. 20, 2002


Discussing the humane execution of the law

As far as I know, no one has tried to figure out why two of the most popular theatrical releases of 2000 in Japan were "The Green Mile" and "Dancer in the Dark," movies whose dramatic core involved capital punishment and whose moral compass pointed toward the opinion that noncombat state-sanctioned killing is inhumane.

Both films have since passed into rental videoland, but I think such a study would be timely right now since the national media has recently shown signs that it no longer regards the death penalty as an unassailable part of the legal system.

On Dec. 28, it was revealed that two deathrow inmates, one in Nagoya and one in Tokyo, had been executed the previous day. Normally, the press reports executions briefly and without comment, but the timing of these particular events was seen to coincide with a season -- the New Year's break -- when media and public attention is occupied elsewhere. It was obvious that the government, which must approve death sentences, wanted as little publicity as possible.

Reporters responded to this perceived slight by asking Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama about the executions during the year's last press conference the following day, since it was Moriyama who signed the execution order. The question, in fact, was uncharacteristically blunt: Why did you do it? A bureaucrat then leaned over and whispered something in her ear. "I cannot discuss individual cases," she said.

The Justice Ministry does not announce executions. They only confirm them after the fact. They also do not reveal the names of the people executed. If the media reports them, they likely get the information from nongovernmental organizations, acquaintances of the executed parties, or other, unrevealed, sources. They rarely, if ever, follow a capital case from trial to conclusion -- which is understandable given that even the condemned person is not told when he will be hanged until one hour before it happens.

When asked if the government plans to review its capital punishment policy in the face of growing international opposition to the practice ("Even Korea is considering abolishing it," said one reporter), Moriyama simply said that one of the most important factors in its continuance is that "80 percent of the Japanese population accepts the death penalty."

This figure of 80 percent, which is based on a survey conducted by the Cabinet Office, is always used to defend capital punishment, so why does the government feel it has to hide executions from the public's attention? The secrecy and dissembling seems to send a message that the government is, in fact, ashamed of the policy.

A more likely reason is that the government doesn't want capital punishment to become a "hot button" issue, as it is in the United States, where state-administered executions are openly reported and can even be observed. Generally speaking, the Japanese government prefers to leave controversial ideas in the realm of academia, where they won't come into contact with real life and people's feelings.

It is up to the media to introduce such difficult topics into the public sphere, but for the most part, they have never discussed the moral contradictions surrounding the death penalty.

The Dec. 27 executions may change all this. Toshihiko Hasegawa, the man who was put to death in Nagoya, received more than the usual human-interest coverage. Hasegawa was convicted of killing three men between 1979 and 1983 in a murder-for-insurance case, and Masaharu Harada, the brother of one of his victims, has been petitioning the government to not execute Hasegawa ever since his sentence was handed down in the early '90s. A Justice Ministry official told Harada to his face that his petition would be taken into consideration.

At first, Harada wanted Hasegawa to die, but over the years, he received hundreds of letters from the convicted man expressing remorse for his crime. Prior to Hasegawa's sentencing, the two met in prison four times. According to a short documentary aired on TV Asahi's "News Station" the night of Jan. 9, Harada had wanted Hasegawa to be kept alive "so that he could continue apologizing for what he did."

Harada attended Hasegawa's wake, which was held in a church, with an open casket. "I could see the mark of the rope on his neck," he says in the documentary. "From what I heard, he faced death calmly." According to "News Station" anchor Hiroshi Kume, the director of the documentary included a shot of Hasegawa's corpse, but the producer cut it because he felt viewers would not accept such a "cruel" image.

One person's opposition to one particular death sentence does not discount the supposed desires of 80 percent of the population, but it did prompt TV Asahi to look at the Cabinet Office survey more closely. At least half the respondents who stated they approve of capital punishment do so because they believe it is the only way to alleviate the pain of the victim's family. If we justify the death penalty as a means of helping the victim's family get over their loss, then it follows that the victim's family's wishes should be taken into consideration when signing the execution order. That clearly did not happen in Harada's case.

Legally and philosophically, this would be problematic at best, but that doesn't mean it doesn't deserve discussion. Last Thursday, a group of lawmakers that opposes the death penalty, headed by LDP veteran Shizuka Kamei, made an official protest to Moriyama about the recent executions. It remains to be seen how the media will handle the issue, but for the time being the public, whose wishes are supposedly being honored, is forced to look for answers at the movies.

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