Japan Focus: Michael H. Fox translates Justice Minister Hatoyama interview re capital punishment


Hi Blog. I mentioned in my last Japan Times Article (December 18, 2007) the following oddity about our Justice Minister:

As the party cream floats to the top, debates become very closed-circuit, intellectually incestuous–and even oddly anti-gaijin. For example, Justice Minister Kunio “friend of a friend in al-Qaeda” Hatoyama was quoted as saying (Shuukan Asahi Oct 26, 2007 p. 122), “The Japanese place more importance on the value of life… European civilizations of power and war mean their concept of life is weaker than the Japanese. This is why they are moving towards abolishing the death penalty.” Then he approved three execution orders. Earth to Kunio, come in?

The thing is, there’s a lot more screwballity here. Here’s a link to the whole Shuukan Asahi interview I referred to translated by Michael H. Fox. I’ll excerpt Mike’s commentary here, but the interview is a long one, so I’ll let you go directly to the Japan Focus page for it.

Pretty remarkable opinions from a politico who has risen this far. Then again, as I’ve said, Japan’s parliament is a peerage in disguise, so for anyone who comes from a country with an inherited ensconced class, we all know what silly things their “upper-class twits” get up to. Pity they get elected and given this much unvetted political power here. Debito in Monbetsu

“Why I Support Executions”
An interview with Justice Minister Hatoyama Kunio
Translation and Commentary by Michael H. Fox


Hatoyama Kunio, current Justice Minister of Japan, is one of Japan’s most candid politicians. He has a penchant for speaking his mind, and startling the public, his party and even his ministry. In the wide ranging interview below, originally published in the weekly magazine Weekly Asahi (Shukan Asahi) on October 26 [2007], he sounds off on a number of timely and important issues regarding Japan’s justice system, particularly the death penalty, and upcoming changes to the socio-legal structure.

Hatoyama was born into a political dynasty. His father Seiichiro served in the Diet and was a Minister of Foreign Affairs. His grandfather Hatoyama Ichiro was Prime Minister from December 1954 to December 1956. And his great-grandfather Kazuo, served in the Diet and was president of Waseda University. His elder brother Yukio, is a Diet member and a leader of the opposition Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan). According to his website, Hatoyama declared that he would enter politics when he was in the second year of elementary school. His wish started to materialize when he became a secretary to Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei after graduating from Tokyo University’s Department of Law in 1972.

Hatoyama has had a long political career. Elected to the Diet in 1976, he has served as Education Minister and Labor Minister. He left the LDP in 1996, and was elected to the Diet as a Minshuto candidate. Three years later, he abandoned the party and resigned his seat in the Diet. He ran unsuccessfully for Governor of Tokyo in 1999. Soon after, he returned to the LDP and won a seat in the diet in 2000 under the system of proportional representation. He became Minister of Justice under previous Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in August of 2007, and continued in the post in the present cabinet of Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo. At what turned out to be the last press conference for the Abe cabinet, he suggested that “executions should be carried out automatically without involving the Minister of Justice.”

The comment sent shock waves through the country. The last step in the long process of trying, sentencing and finally executing a convicted criminal is the signature of the minister of justice. Once signed, the execution of a death warrant must be carried out within five days. The justice minister’s involvement in the process is so critical that several of Hatoyama’s predecessors refused to carry out executions.

As a result of his reluctance to sign death warrants and a desire to continue executions, Hatoyama was widely criticized. Kamei Shizuka, a former director of the National Police Agency and LDP bigwig, now represents The People’s New Party in the diet. He was progenitor of the non-partisan Parliamentary League for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. Hosaka Nobuto, a member of the Social Democratic Party, is one of the country’s most progressive politicians and an outspoken opponent of the death penalty.

In addition to the death penalty, Hatoyama has voiced opinions on other areas of the criminal justice system, including the upcoming quasi-jury system for major criminal trials scheduled to begin in May 2009. Suspects charged with committing crimes that carry a sentence of three years or more will have the right to a jury composed of three sitting judges and six citizens. While supporting the quasi-jury system, in this interview he attacks the policy of increasing the number of attorneys in Japan’s severely under-lawyered society. Currently, approximately 1,200 people, or roughly two percent of candidates pass the National Bar Exam and begin careers as lawyers, prosecutors, or judges. This number is scheduled to grow to 3,000 in the near future as the first crop of students graduate from newly established law schools.

Also mentioned in the interview is the Toyama Rape Case, a now infamous miscarriage of justice. In 2002, a man was wrongly convicted of rape and attempted rape in Toyama Prefecture and served twenty-five months in prison before being exonerated this year when the real culprit confessed. The conviction was based on a coerced confession and the suppression of exculpatory evidence. This case has galvanized public opinion and stimulated the need for greater transparency in police investigations, especially the filming of interrogations.

Hatoyama suggests that executions should be carried out automatically after an objective examination by a third party who will “review the transcripts.” However, no such system has ever been proposed or even discussed in Japan. The idea of an objective third party seems to be a face-saving measure designed to deflect the storm of criticism that followed Hatoyama’s comments. He also suggests that executions should only be carried out after retrial requests and petitions for amnesty have been exhausted. The Japanese Code of Criminal Procedure does not limit retrial requests — Sakae Menda, the first Japanese man freed from death row – went through six retrials. Likewise, the mention of amnesties is irrelevant: none have been granted since the mid 1970’s.

Other Hatoyama comments are puzzling. He mentions that “some countries do not even have laws banning jeopardy” as if to infer that Japan is superior in this respect. Though Article 39 of the constitution prohibits double jeopardy, the prosecution in Japan may appeal any verdict, and almost always appeals innocent verdicts and sentences considered too light. Likewise, his statement that “in Japan there is a right to silence, but in England, if you keep silent, this means you acknowledge guilt.” In fact the complete opposite is true. Silence in Japan is considered an acknowledgement of guilt.

Hatoyama’s preference for reducing the number of lawyers is reactionary and contrary to his ministry’s policy. The increase occurred after a long process of judicial policy making involving the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Education (which has set up law schools) and Parliament. All agreed that Japan has far too few lawyers, and is ill equipped for dealing with the complexities of International business law.

Hatoyama, like many of his LDP colleagues, has capitalized on the mostly docile electorate. An increase in lawyers, despite the pressing need, will certainly agitate this mind set. His comment about lawyers being unable to find work in contemporary Japan is completely askew from reality. His opinions indicate a deep mistrust of empowering the public and independent legal policy, and strong support for top-down decision making and bureaucratic control.

Just over a month after this interview was originally published, Hatoyama demonstrated his resolve to execute: three convicts, two in Tokyo and one in Osaka, were hung on December 7. Hatoyama’s imprint on the process was clear. In a clear break with previous policy, the ministry openly announced the names of the executed, and the crimes leading to conviction. From 1998, the ministry only announced the number of executions, omitting all other details. Before 1998, there were not even any announcements. In both cases the names of the executed were revealed only to attorneys and designated guarantors of the accused. These parties were charged with directly informing the press, or informing the public indirectly through the offices of Amnesty International.

The dramatic increase in executions –thirteen– over the last 12 months signifies a departure from policy. Double digit hangings in such a span have not occurred since 1975.

The flurry has generated a shock-wave of concern in a society trying to grapple with a rapidly ageing population: three of those executed have been over age 70. Akiyama Yoshimitsu, one of four convicts hung on Christmas Day 2006, became the oldest person executed in post-war Japan. Aged 77 and quite infirm, he was transported to the gallows in a wheel chair. Ikemoto Noboru, executed in Osaka on December 7th, was hung two weeks before his 75th birthday. Originally sentenced to life imprisonment, his sentence was raised to death upon appeal. Had the government allowed the original sentence to stand, Ikemoto would most likely have been paroled in 2006, eighteen years into his sentence.

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