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Editorial: Japan needs to take long, hard look in mirror over death penalty

The United Nations General Assembly has adopted a resolution calling on member states to halt executions as a step toward abolishing the death penalty outright. This is a statement of the international community's will on capital punishment.

    Nearly identical resolutions have been passed every other year since 2007. This year, 125 countries, including European nations, voted in favor, while 37 countries including Japan, the United States, China and North Korea opposed it. Twenty-two countries abstained.

    The death penalty demands a person to atone for a crime with their life. But of course, even if a person is found to have been falsely convicted, there is no hope for them should the exculpating evidence be discovered after their execution. And there is growing momentum toward abolition globally.

    Here in Japan, four people sentenced to death were ultimately acquitted in retrials in the 1980s.

    According to international human rights nongovernmental organizations, 144 countries have abolished or suspended the death penalty. Eighteen, including Japan, carried out executions in 2021.

    The countries that still have capital punishment on the books are concentrated in the Middle East and Asia, and include only three of the 38 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) -- Japan, the United States and South Korea. The latter last carried out an execution in 1997.

    In Japan, executions have been carried out almost annually in recent years. The government explained at the United Nations that it uses the death penalty only for particularly heinous crimes, and stressed that it is taking strict and prudent measures. However, countries that have abolished executions have chosen to deal with even horrific crimes with life sentences without parole, and Japan's arguments lack persuasive power.

    Japan has kept the death penalty not only out of concern for the bereaved families of murder victims, but also because of public opinion, with 80% of poll respondents saying that capital punishment is necessary.

    However, there were no executions for a three-year, four-month span beginning in December 1989. During this period, the justice minister's office was occupied by some personnel that opposed the death penalty.

    There are also problems with the way the government discloses information on capital punishment. The U.N. resolution stresses that countries that retain the death penalty have an obligation to ensure transparency, including the disclosure of execution schedules. In Japan, the condemned is notified immediately before they are killed, and some observers have called for reforms.

    The European Union and other countries have harshly criticized Japan's death penalty system, asserting that it should be abolished in any country that values human rights.

    The preamble to Japan's Constitution states, "We desire to occupy an honored place in an international society striving for the preservation of peace, and the banishment of tyranny and slavery, oppression and intolerance for all time from the earth." If Japan is to achieve this "honored place," it must keep an eye on global trends and deepen debate over the death penalty.

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