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By Ben Rutledge

In the Name of Justice

What will Japan gain by killing a 70-year-old woman?

Ben Rutledge is a freelance writer and journalist living in Tokyo

In November, the Supreme Court of Japan, in upholding lower-court rulings, sentenced Haruno Sakamoto to death for the murder of her husband and another woman. The severity of the sentence was not the only thing that struck me about the articles I read—it was the age of the detainee. According to Supreme Court records (which begin in 1966), Sakamoto is, at 77, the only person over the age of 70 to have received the death sentence.

The death penalty has often struck me as a form of legal, state-endorsed murder, one that’s not practiced in my own country of England. Perhaps this is partly why I found the story of Haruno Sakamoto so disturbing. Such a punishment surely violates mankind’s primary entitlement: the right to life. Furthermore, it being so irrevocable, the death penalty can lead to the ultimate miscarriage of justice, as has happened in the past both in England and Japan. Capital punishment has never been shown to be a more successful deterrent than others; indeed, the murder rate in American states that have the death penalty is higher than the ones that do not. I find it difficult to understand why a democratic, 21st-century government like Japan’s employs such tactics in its judicial system.

The article about Sakamoto made me question what level of support such decisions had among the population here. My preconceptions of legal systems that endorse such practices are that they are antiquated and in need of urgent reform. However, I was surprised to discover that a survey in 1999 found that 79.3 percent of Japanese supported the use of the death penalty “under certain circumstances.” This figure may now be even higher due to the almost unanimous support of the death sentence given last February to Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Perhaps this is why politicians do not feel the need to reform such policy.

Supporters of the death penalty claim it is a very effective deterrent, and that statistics from the United States oversimplify the matter. Admittedly, I never stopped to think about this—many other factors in society affect murder rates. Comparing state-to-state figures might not provide accurate information about how effective a deterrent it is.
With these thoughts in mind, I decided to look at the UN’s policy to perhaps re-affirm my own beliefs. I was pleased to find that they have been aggressively opposing the use of capital punishment. Every year since 1997, the UN Human Rights Commission has passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on executions. “It is not prudent to accept the hypothesis,” the commission states, “that capital punishment deters murder to a marginally greater extent than does the threat and application of the supposedly lesser punishment of life imprisonment.” I find the lack of sure statistics about the death penalty’s effectiveness astonishing considering what is at stake.

So, why has this continual pressure from abroad not instigated change here? One of the principal reasons is the widespread belief that the country is “less safe than it used to be,” a phrase I regularly hear. On top of this general concern is the problem that those serving a life sentence in Japan may be considered for parole after only ten years, and those who are given a fixed sentence are eligible for parole after serving only a third of that term. There is, therefore, an extensive gap between the death penalty and the next most severe sentence. Although statistics suggest very few murderers are released after ten years, the public’s attitude seems to be that as long as early parole remains a possibility, the death penalty will continue to have its support. I think that the government should re-evaluate this policy by enabling judges to hand out stiffer sentences than are currently possible without resorting to the death penalty.

The human rights organization Amnesty International tracks the negligible effects that the abolition of capital punishment has on murder rates. In Canada, for instance, the murders have actually steadily dropped by about 40 percent since it got rid of the death penalty. With this and other comparable statistics in mind, I am appalled by the Japanese government’s failure to seriously consider taking a similar step.

Although I worry that the majority of people support capital punishment without possessing the in-depth knowledge the subject deserves, I have great faith that Amnesty International, the UN and others will continue pressing for the abolition of what is effectively murder under the name of “justice.” The subject is such a controversial and sensitive one that reform will inevitably take a great deal of time. But whatever the future of capital punishment, the complete polarization of its supporters and detractors will, I hope, ensure that this debate remains at the forefront of political minds for a long time to come. M

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