Michael H. Fox examines Japan's death penalty.

Each year, dozens of nonprofit organizations publish reports describing the rights and freedoms of citizens around the globe. Their statistics are used to evaluate each country individually and vis-a-vis each other. The results are often criticized as non-scientific, subjective or political. But there is one universal standard to measure the sanctity of human rights in any country: the absence of a death penalty. Capital punishment, according to many critics, is what separates the primitive nations from the civilized.

In modern industrialized societies, the death penalty has several functions. It gains votes for right-wing politicians who run on law-and-order platforms. It satisfies the sensibilities of religious fundamentalists by proving that divine retribution is being served. It fosters nationalism and group solidarity when a spy or terrorist is executed. But there is one thing that the death penalty does not do: prevent crime. No study, east or west, has ever shown that criminals are deterred by the fear of execution.

For this reason, as well as a strong belief that human life is sacred, the death penalty has been eradicated in many countries. Western Europe has been at the forefront of this movement, abolition of capital punishment is a requisite for membership in the European Union. At the other extreme are states like China, Iran and the U.S., the latter a country where more juvenile offenders sit on death row than in any other country in the world.

Japan's Stance
In this regard, Japan is a contradiction in terms. Japan has a death penalty, but uses it sparingly, executing "only" two or three prisoners a year. One would expect that in light of the movement for universal abolishment, Japan would don a diplomatic posture and join the crowd. But it hesitates because the death penalty has two important psychological functions in Japanese society.

Living in overcrowded metropolises and working in hierarchical and emotionally stifling companies is a cause of stress and psychological pressure. Urban office workers toil away for hours with meager rest, few vacations and little in the way of gratitude from superiors.

So what role does the death penalty play in this schemata? It fulfills the societal needs for a form of retribution. By reinforcing the notion that bad things happen to bad people, it also intimates that good things will happen to good people. Bizarre as it may seem, many Japanese psychologists agree that the death penalty provides a psychic release from the pressure and degradation of conformity, repression and overwork.

But capital punishment in Japan has a more concrete purpose: it is an effective tool for instilling fear during police interrogations. The criminally accused have few rights in this country and police are free to verbally abuse suspects from morning to evening for days on end. The ultimate aim of such tactics is to extract confessions. The death penalty is the ultimate trump card in this game. Because, no matter how strongly one resists and proclaims innocence, when faced with the choice of "sing or swing," the suspect will usually capitulate and sign a confession. Capital punishment, or rather the fear of it, is a powerful and useful weapon in the hands of the authorities.

Carrying out the Sentence

The procedure for execution in Japan is opaque and carried out in secrect. Executions are performed not at prisons, but at detention centers. Those on death row are never sent to prison, but remain in the detention center until an appeal is won or their execution is carried out. The only method used is hanging, a procedure which has been abandoned in many places because it can result in beheading. The hangings are conducted on Friday mornings, and convicts are not given advance notification. Surviving any Friday past nine a.m. guarantees another week of life. The names of the executed are never announced publicly, and the act of execution may not be acknowledged until well after the event. Even family and attorneys are not informed of the deaths firsthand - they learn of the executions when the detention center requests the removal of a prisoner's possessions or ashes.

Historically, executions have been carried out while the Diet is in recess, a tactic to avoid political criticism. Last year, two inmates, one in Nagoya and one in Tokyo, were hung on December 27. The day was politically well chosen. Not only was the Diet out; but two other trials overshadowed the executions. Prosecutors in Utsunomiya, Tochigi requested death for Shinozawa Kazuo, accused of killing six women in a jewelry store heist last June, and Takuma Mamoru, the perpetrator of the Ikeda elementary school murders entered a guilty plea in Osaka and requested execution.

The Activist Movement
Japan has a vocal and growing abolitionist movement. Osaka's activities are propelled by a group calling itself Katatsumuri-kai (The Snail Association). They publish a thick newsletter "Shikei to Jinken" (The Death Penalty and Human Rights), hold symposiums and demonstrate at the Osaka Detention Center.

Demonstrations are usually held on Thursday nights to counter the possibility of a Friday morning execution. The group meets at Miyakojima Station on the Tanimachi subway line and passes out leaflets for about 30 minutes. After leafleting, lanterns are lit and then the group walks to the detention center chanting slogans against capital punishment:
"Shi no yojin! Shikei no yojin!"
(Beware of death! Beware of executions!)
This is a variation on the cry of the chant "
Hi no yojin!" (Beware of fire!) typically chanted by neighborhood groups during the New Year's period.
"Jishin, kaminari, kaji, shikei."
(Earthquakes, thunder, fire and execution.)
This version of the traditional four fears of schoolboys with "execution" substituted for "father."

In front of the gate of the detention center, the leader of the protest group hoists up his megaphone and shouts, "Detention Center Chief Nemoto Takeshi, we urge you to disregard any orders from the Ministry of Justice to conduct executions on this premises." This plea is followed by further chants.

Since it is summer, the sound carries quite a way. We are a few centimeters outside the legal perimeter of the center. Two guards approach ominously. We demonstrators are ordered to back up, and a chain is hoister to keep us away.. One participant mentions that being arrested, even for such a small and peaceful demonstration would not be odd, since a prior permit had not been obtained.

Pros and cons
Some proponents of the death penalty seek its continuance for economic reasons. They claim that to feed and clothe inmates serving life sentences is a waste of taxpayers' money. According to American statistics (no Japanese statistics are available), it costs about $24,000 a year to house each inmate. But the state does not save that amount in the event of execution, as this includes the total costs of prison employee salaries, building amortization, administration and maintenance fees divided by the entire prison population. Quite to the contrary, statistics show that it costs $2,400,000 per execution. In most states, death row convicts are given unlimited economic resourced to contest their sentence. Each case costs $800,000, and since two out of three death sentences are diminished on appeal, the final charge to taxpayer's coffers is outrageously high.

Opponents of the death penalty insist that if the state wants to save money by killing its citizens, the elderly and infirm could soon become target.

To further support their views, many proponents of capital punishment are quick to cite the career of some twisted murderer: Ted Bundy, Timothy McVeigh or Takuma Mamoru. They insist that such monsters should not be spared from retribution. But the strongest argument for abolishment is not based on mercy for the criminal. To the contrary, it is to protect the innocent. In the year 2005, the number of prisoners who have been exonerated after serving lengthy sentences in the U.S.A. is shockingly high: 121. That is 121people who have been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and sentenced to die by their peers.

One of the more frightening stories to come out of the USA revolves around a former Oklahoma police chemist Joyce Gilchrist who was investigated by the FBI for knowingly falsifying laboratory tests that were submitted as evidence in trials. The chemist "worked in some capacity on the cases against 11 people already put to death and another 12 waiting on death row." (Japan Times).

Putting the notions of economics and personal ambition aside, the strongest argument against the death penalty is that it has and will be used against innocent people. It is undoable. The conscientious nations of the world have thus abolished it. Japanese activists are convinced that if America were to abolish the death penalty, their country would soon follow suit. But as the current president oversaw 152 executions in Texas during his reign as governor, it is highly unlikely that their dream will be realized in the near future. Perhaps the time has come for Japan to eschew its historic "big brother" and fall in with the world's more enlightened nations.

(An earlier version of this article was published in the monthly magazine