From The Japan Times online
24 September 2009
With the inauguration of the new government led by the Democratic Party of Japan, there could be a lull in executions of death-row inmates, at least for the time being. Recent years have seen accelerated hangings under Liberal Democratic Party-led governments.
Political commentators have taken particular notice of the appointment of Upper House member Keiko Chiba as justice minister. She opposes capital punishment and belongs to the nonpartisan Parliamentary League for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. The justice minister has the final say in authorizing executions.
Any move toward carrying out executions could also trigger resistance from other members of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's Cabinet. Shizuka Kamei, leader of the People's New Party, leads the anti-death penalty league, and Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the Social Democratic Party, also is staunchly opposed to capital punishment.
After the Cabinet was seated on Wednesday, Chiba said at her inaugural news conference that it is her "personal feeling that it would be good" if there were moves toward a moratorium on executions or abolition of the death penalty.
But she added: "The fact remains that the justice minister is tasked with professional duties under the law. I am fully aware (that a justice minister) is obliged institutionally to deal with executions."
Said Toyo Atsumi, a professor of criminal procedure at Kyoto Sangyo University's law school, "If (a minister) avoids executions when the institution of execution exists, there will be no rule of law. I am sure Justice Minister Chiba is fully aware of that and if executions are to be done away with, it must be after (relevant) revisions to the law have been made."
Nobuto Hosaka, secretary general of the death penalty opponents' parliamentary league, is hopeful about the new justice minister. "I would think she will probably institute a moratorium. No doubt a brake will be put on executions," he said.
The ministry itself was noncommittal. "For the time being, various matters will come under review and a judgment will probably be made after fully considering the circumstances," a spokesman said.
The Code of Criminal Procedure provides that the justice minister order an execution within six months after a death sentence is finalized. Not all ministers, however, have signed execution orders.
Japan saw a lull in executions for three years and four months starting in November 1989. That period included Megumu Sato's term as justice minister from 1990 to 1991. A Buddhist monk, Sato refused to sign execution orders, citing his faith.
Masaharu Gotoda restarted executions in March 1993. Since then almost all justice ministers, except for those serving brief stints, have ordered executions. A notable exception was Seiken Sugiura, who assumed the justice minister's post in October 2005.
At his inaugural press conference, Sugiura openly said he would not sign an execution order on religious and philosophical grounds but retracted the statement one hour later. During his nearly one-year tenure, however, he never signed an execution order.
Since then, the number of people on death row has grown to around 100, and executions also have risen.
Among recent justice ministers, Kunio Hatoyama signed orders for 13 executions, while his predecessor, Jinen Nagano, signed 10.