Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
Former Justice Minister Seiken Sugiura’s comment that abolishing the death penalty in Japan would represent a step towards becoming a “mature democratic nation” is an unusual take for a Japanese on this difficult topic (“Sugiura: End death penalty in name of democracy,” Japan Times, July 31). So reading it was a welcome deviation from the usual dull and obtuse government excuses of how the death penalty “can’t be helped” or that it enjoys majority support in Japanese public opinion polls that are regularly paraded before us. Sugiura’s comments introduce an exciting avenue of speculation and debate.
I am not a death penalty opponent. I know that capital punishment has nothing at all to do with deterrence of heinous crime, but I am sensitive to the barbarity of judicial killing. I am even more sensitive to a potentially greater barbarity that threatens to replace judicial execution. That is, the horror of handing down life sentences with no chance of parole. Imagine it. To the convict judicial execution might be preferable to such a fate.
On the one hand we might call it pure and immoral selfishness on our part to end capital punishment so that we can feel better about ourselves and boast of the enhanced humanity of our society. It allows us more easily to ignore other barbarities carried out by the state - of which the public is culpable as an accomplice - on our behalf. On the other hand we might call it gratuitously sadistic on our part to sentence criminals to an inhumane lifetime of supervised incarceration. On the other hand we might call such gratuitous sadism not ill deserved by the convicted and simultaneously an acceptable substitute to slake the anger and fear of the public. On the other hand we might call it immorally irresponsible of us not to remove from the gene pool those elements that threaten civilization. On the other hand ... wait, there are too many hands!
Published on Sunday, August 5, 2012 as “Death penalty pros and cons.”
On Thursday, August 2 The Japan Times printed a first letter in response to the July 31 editorial. It was called “Japan still has a long way to go” by Paul Gaysford of Tokyo. It was printed so soon - the first Readers in Council page after the editorial appeared - that it must have been written and submitted on the very day itself (Tuesday, July 31), the same day as my letter. And yet on that Thursday the paper decided to print Gaysford, not me.
But I guess things changed on Friday, August 3 when two men in Japan were executed by hanging, reported in the Saturday 4th newspapers. 31-year old Kyozo Matsumura was hanged in the Osaka Detention House for robbery and murder in 2007, and 40-year-old Junya Hattori was hanged in the Tokyo Detention House for a 2002 rape and murder. I guess this event put the capital punishment issue so much back on the plate that the paper’s editor decided to print my letter even though he apparently decided not to the previous week. It would have looked good alongside the Gaysford letter.
Rather than saying “I am sensitive to the barbarity of judicial killing” I should have said “I am sensitive to the coldness of judicial killing,” or maybe the“barbaric coldness” of it, because I think it is the emotionally detached coldness of it that is particularly frightening. For the prison officials involved the entire procedure must be reduced to a rigid protocol to help shield them from the horror of what they are doing. The condemned ceases to be treated as a human and is, instead, just a thing. So there is a reason for it.