Japan Today



Politics and capital punishment a volatile mixture


On June 17, 45-year-old Tsutomu Miyazaki, convicted of abducting and killing four little girls between 1989 and 1989, was executed in Tokyo’s Kosuge Prison. Miyazaki, who had been working as a photo technician at the time of his arrest, was disfigured due to a birth defect and had suffered bullying as a child.

Psychiatrists diagnosed Miyazaki as psychotic (dissociative identity disorder and/or schizophrenia). But the court ruled that he was nonetheless aware of the consequences of his acts and therefore accountable, and sentenced him to death in April, 1997. The Supreme Court upheld his death sentence in January 2006.

The timing of Miyazaki's execution did not escape the media’s notice, having been carried out just nine days after 25-year-old Tomohiro Kato went a rampage, killing seven people and injuring 10 in broad daylight on the streets of Akihabara.

Akihabara’s “Electric Town” is regarded as a mecca for “otaku” (a term translated variously as nerds, geeks or fanatical hobbyists). Miyazaki became referred to as “The Otaku Murderer” after a police search of his residence turned thousands of videotapes with pornographic or violent contents.

The New York Times (6/18) quoted Jeff Kingston, director of Asia studies at Temple University Japan, as saying he thought the executions of Miyazaki and two other convicts on the heels of the Akihabara killings “was designed to send out a reassuring message to the Japanese people that the full sentence will be carried out.”

The executions once again put controversial Minister of Justice Kunio Hatoyama back in the media limelight.

Last week, Hatoyama was infuriated at remarks in the evening edition of the Asahi Shimbun (6/18) the day after Miyazaki’s execution, in which he was described as “shinigami” (a grim reaper) for having speeded up the process of executions. So far, 13 men have been hanged during his 10-month tenure.

Compared to the average of 60.5 executions per year in the three decades from 1949 to 1979, the pace of executions, which in Japan is done by “long drop” hanging, has declined considerably. Last year nine convicts, all males, were executed. Japan currently has 102 inmates on death row, including several women. No woman, however, has been executed in Japan since 1965.

“For over three years during the early 1990s, not a single execution was carried out,” notes a legal authority in Nikkan Gendai (6/19). “One of the justice ministers, Megumu Sato, was a devout Buddhist and refrained from ordering any for religious reasons, and also during this time the abolition of capital punishment was actively debated.

“The recent change from those times has been almost unbelievable,” he continues. “For the decade up to 2007, the duration between the final court decision and execution was around eight years. For the three men (executed on June 17), this was drastically shortened, to about three years.”

Osamu Seki, a lecturer in psychology at Meiji University, tells Nikkan Gendai he thinks the rush to expedite executions may be due moves afoot to revise the penal code to include sentencing for life without possibility of parole -- a provision currently not on the books.

“I get the feeling that Justice Minister Hatoyama, whose hobby is collecting butterflies, does not have a deep respect for human life,” says Seki. “He’s infatuated with looking at his mounted specimens, and likes things done in a neat, orderly manner. To him, to not move ahead with executions after the death penalty has been determined by the court is a ‘rule violation.’ I wonder if he perceives himself as ‘beautiful’ for having enforced the rules.”

While opinion surveys indicate that roughly four out of five Japanese support capital punishment, there is also an ambivalence toward the practice, stemming from awareness over previous miscarriages of justice. Police coercion of criminal suspects during extended periods of detention -- before any charges are actually filed -- has recently come under strong criticism.

Writing in Shukan Kinyobi (6/13), Akira Maeda notes that last Jan 24, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department released a new set of “guidelines for investigation” at divisions other than those engaged in criminal investigation.

“Cells at police stations are ‘substitute prisons,’ and used as a systematized means for generating miscarriages of justice,” Maeda quotes a man who had been detained on suspicion of a crime in the Nagoya Police Station from February to July 2003. “I saw guys who would confess, or lie, in exchange for gifts of juice or treats from a detective. Being inside is rough, since you can’t purchase anything yourself. If you keep denying your guilt, they won’t even let you have a cigarette. Do what they tell you, and they let you smoke.”

But the debate ended, as far as Miyazaki was concerned, when the executioner at Kosuge, acting on Hatoyama’s authority, sprung the trap on June 17.

“We were in the process of filing a new appeal,” Miyazaki's attorney Maiko Tagusari tells Friday (July 4). “The end of May, we had sent a contents-certified registered mail requesting a stay of execution, pointing out that Mr Miyazaki was undergoing psychotherapy in prison. Despite knowing this, they went ahead with the execution anyway. We strongly protest.”

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Why do we, as a society, punish someone?

There are few different answers to this question, some are moderate and enlightened, and some are more emotional and radical. Here are 4 main reasons for punishing a man:

1) “He deserves it” – Emotionally we feel that if someone did bad, then he deserves to be punished, “an eye for an eye”: you’ve killed someone? You should be killed too. This is childish, yet authentic behavior. Most of us feel like this when we first hear the details of a terrible criminal act, though a moderate person or a judge must know to suppress his immediate emotional response, and decide comely, peacefully and rationally, but I’m digressing.

2) “Be ware” - A second reason for punishing someone is to frighten others from committing such forbidden acts, and to scare the criminal himself from doing so in the future. This reasoning doesn’t seem to apply to capital punishment what so ever: for a psychotic people as Tomohiro Kato, lifetime in prison or capital punishment makes no difference; in fact they might even prefer the latter. They do not learn from other cases, they don’t care if someone else was jailed or hanged, they do not make these calculations, they are just insane or tired of it all.

3) Protect Society - A third reason for punishment is to defend society from wrongdoers, from people that interrupt the others, that make our life together less possible or impossible. We punish and lock them down because we have no other way, they don’t let us live our lives peacefully, they give us no other alternative. Such reasoning, of course, can not justify capital punishment – it’s enough to lock down the criminal for life in order to protect society. And though imprisoning cost money and resources to the society, it’s a price society got to pay, for it also has minor responsibility for the bad condition in which the criminal was raised, for his unemployment or for neglecting him, or for not treating his mental condition. I’m not saying in any way he’s not to blame, I’m just saying society have some little responsibility and should spend the money needed for the imprisoning.

4) Rehab - A fourth reason for punishment says that we lock a criminal in order to rehabilitate him, to make him again a decent part of society, a part of us people who respect each other and follow the agreed laws. In many cases real rehab is not possible, the criminal has been through too much, has done too much wrong, or gone totally mad, yet killing will obviously not rehabilitate him either.

One final remark: I’m writing this while being truly sorry for the lives of the people that were murdered, and the awful grief that surrounds their families whose life will never be the same. I just don’t think capital punishment is the answer to anything.

(*) Sorry for my long comment.

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Great Post.

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“Cells at police stations are ‘substitute prisons,’ and used as a systematized means for generating miscarriages of justice,”

But the debate ended, as far as Miyazaki was concerned, when the executioner at Kosuge, acting on Hatoyama’s authority, sprung the trap on June 17.

But there is and was no debate about Miyazaki ? And he did not suffer a miscarriage of justice ? He murdered four little girls, despite the inexcusable excuse of claiming insanity, and was even found with film of his horrors. So I don't understand what the debate is about ? Miyazaki was a nightmare in reality and there was no doubt about his guilt.

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Boo hoo. A psychotic murderer was executed, only 3 years after he committed his murder. We didn't even have time to finish treating him for insanity yet. Seriously, who gives a damn. A monster is gone, society is now better off. The article, as well as the first post in response are just so idiotic I can hardly bear to reply. Regarding executing murderers as an Eye for an Eye.

It really does come down to what society deems is just. What the vast majority of society have decided, is that if you commit a murder, then you automatically remove yourself from society, and forfeit any right to continue living as well. I don't really see any need for debate about this.

In cases of insanity, perhaps there are mitigating circumstances, but when it comes right down to it, it doesn't change the facts. If you committed the crime, even if you weren't really aware of it, it doesn't excuse your crime, and you should have to pay for it. Admittedly much of this is my own personal view, as I see no reason to let people off simply because they claim to be mentally deficient. By my reasoning, anyone who murders another is mentally deficient.

Getting back to the article though. Having been convicted of the crime, and being sentenced to death. I think 3 years is a reasonable amount of time before sentence is carried out. It allows time for a few appeals in case of a faulty trial/lawyer etc. It allows a bit of time for the killers family to come to terms with what has been done and to say good bye. Often more then what the victims families had. Overall, I'd say its fair for everyone. Its certainly much better then the 8 to 20 years previously.

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Good that the japanese are still executing these evil people

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Good first post, thanks.

Everyone's personity is decided by genetics and early environment, two things we have no control over. So someone could become a Buddhist monk or a mass murderer and it would be determined by genetics/environment.

I think we need to recognise this before we execute people. If they are 'monsters' who feel the need to kill, that's genetics. If they were bullied or tortured as children, that's environment.

Having said that, we also have to protect society from these people so they can't be released. While I don't support the death penalty (it devalues life), I think all members of every society (including prisoners) should have the right to euthanasia. Maybe people facing life in prison would prefer to end their own lives rather than spend the rest of their lives incarcerated.

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I think a person forfeits their right to live by unjustifiably taking another life. With Miyazaki's case, it wasn't even a one time thing. I hope the souls of his victims can rest easier knowing he has been punished. Also I believe there are many flaws in Japan's justice system just as there are in the justice systems of every nation. However, it's not as if Japan is executing large numbers of people for stupid reasons or on trumped up charges. Miyazaki's guilt was proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

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