As Aum cultists are hanged, Japan asks if it still needs the death penalty. For most, the answer remains clear
The recent executions of 13 Aum Shumrikyo cultists stirred a debate and some condemnation – but a large majority of Japanese still appear to support capital punishment
The execution of the last members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult on death row last week has triggered debate in Japan over the use of the death penalty, with the left-leaning Asahi newspaper demanding that Tokyo follow the lead of European nations and abolish hanging and author Haruki Murakami weighing in on the discussion.
The vast majority of Japanese people, however, appear to be solidly behind the death penalty for those convicted of serious crimes, such as the sarin gas attack that Aum members carried out on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995.
In an editorial on Friday, just hours after the final six Aum members were hanged, the Asahi newspaper declared the executions to be “shocking”. Three weeks earlier, Aum founder Shoko Asahara and six other followers had met the same fate.
“The news has come as a fresh reminder of how Japan has been left far behind in the global trend concerning the issue,” the editorial stated, repeating the joint statement issued by the European Union on July 26, in which it called for a moratorium on the death penalty because it is “cruel and inhuman and fails to act as a deterrent to crime.”
A spokesman for Amnesty International said “The taking of a life in retribution is never the answer.
“It is high time for the Japanese authorities to establish an immediate moratorium on all executions and promote an informed debate on the death penalty as first steps towards its abolition.”
Murakami, who interviewed dozens of survivors of the sarin attack and relatives of those who died for his book Underground, wrote in an editorial for the Mainichi newspaper that he is opposed to the death penalty because it is wrong for the state to kill and there are numerous documented case of wrongful convictions.
Murakami bends his own rules in the very next paragraph, however, to say that he saw the misery the sarin attacks had inflicted on thousands of people. After witnessing their “sadness, agony and fresh anger with my own eyes, I cannot publicly state, as far as this case is concerned, ‘I am opposed to the death penalty’.”
Th eJapanese government has brushed off international criticism of its retention of the death penalty and insists that more than 80 per cent of the Japanese public supports hanging for heinous crimes.
“Of course we should keep the death penalty,” said Kanako Hosomura, who was a young girl in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, at the height of the public panic over The Little Girl Murders in the late 1980s.
Four girls, aged between four and seven, were abducted in the space of 10 months from August 1988, raped, killed and mutilated by Tsutomu Miyazaki. He dismembered the girls, kept some of their limbs as trophies, drank their blood and cooked and ate other parts of their bodies. He cremated some of the girls’ remains and posted them in boxes to their parents, adding taunting notes.
Miyazaki was executed in June 2008.
“There are some people who are just evil and nothing will change that, I believe,” Hosomura said. “I’m a mother and I cannot begin to understand how the parents of his victims felt.
“There is no point in a person like that staying alive and wasting taxpayers’ money by sitting in prison for the rest of his life,” she said. “I feel the same way about the Aum cult members; they felt no remorse for the people they killed. Or maybe they did after they were caught.”
Yoichi Shimada, a professor at Fukui Prefectural University, says it is not important whether the death penalty acts as a deterrent.
“I believe that retribution is necessary in order to maintain stability in society and show that justice is being carried out,” he said. “When the crime is so vicious and there is no other way for the individual to atone for his actions, then the death penalty is completely appropriate.”