INTERVIEW/ Former justice minister: Death penalty a tool of the powerful

Hideo Hiraoka has not forgotten the barbs and sneers directed his way over his cautious stance toward ordering death penalties when he was justice minister.

More than a decade after leaving that post, Hiraoka was offended by another comment concerning capital punishment.

Yasuhiro Hanashi was forced to resign as justice minister in November last year after he jokingly said that he served in a “low-profile position that makes headlines only when the minister has stamped an order for executing a death penalty.”

Hiraoka said he was stunned that someone in that Cabinet post could utter such an insensible remark that makes light of human lives.

Born in 1954, Hiraoka joined the Finance Ministry before taking a counselor’s post at the Cabinet Legislation Bureau and serving as a Lower House member with the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan.

He was justice minister under the DPJ-led administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in 2011.

Now a lawyer, Hiraoka is a representative organizer of the Citizens’ Committee to Abolish Capital Punishment.

He shared his thoughts about the death penalty in a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

Excerpts follow:


Question: What do you think of Hanashi’s remark?

Hiraoka: The death penalty is, needless to say, about taking human lives. The former justice minister quipped about it to provoke laughter from the audience. I was taken aback by the sheer shallowness of it. It was unpardonable.

Q: The Criminal Procedure Law provides that execution of the death penalty shall be ordered by the justice minister. You were in that post for about four months in the DPJ-led Noda administration in 2011. What did you do at the time?

A: When I was taking office as justice minister, I said I wanted to think cautiously about executing the death penalty, although I had yet to decide that capital punishment should be abolished.

For starters, I wanted to stir national debate on whether to maintain the death penalty. That was written in a collection of policies the DPJ had released ahead of the Lower House election of 2009 (that brought the party to power.)

I attempted to set up an expert panel on the matter, but I ended up stepping down as justice minister before a panel was formed.

Q: What was the reaction to your cautious stance on executions?

A: A Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker strongly denounced me in the Diet, saying that executing the death penalty is a “duty” of the justice minister.

But I was convinced that thinking about the death penalty system, including whether to maintain or abolish it, is also an important duty of the justice minister.

Justice Ministry bureaucrats also asked me to think about carrying out death sentences. So I ordered senior ministry officials to present cases where executions were deemed due. I did so partly to ask myself if I was ready to decide on the matter.

They presented two cases where the murderer killed more than one relative. I was told those cases had drawn little social attention, and there were no chances the charges were false.

Q: Where did your consideration of those cases lead?

A: I read thick reams of documents and summoned senior ministry officials for a meeting.

It occurred to me that people who committed similar crimes in countries of the European Union, where there is no death penalty system, did not have their lives taken away. I found it unreasonable that human lives carried different weights in different nations.

I felt a strong need for a broad, national debate on capital punishment, and I could not bring myself to order executions. I am campaigning against the death penalty now because of what I experienced back then.


Q: Let me come back to this question: Why are you against the death penalty?

A: Human lives should be respected more than any other human right. Even the state should not be allowed to take human lives. That should be a basic social norm. And it has yet to be demonstrated scientifically that the death penalty deters crimes.

Postwar Japan has seen four cases where a death-row inmate with a finalized sentence was found not guilty in a retrial. An execution based on a wrong verdict cannot be undone.

Hearings on a retrial request filed by (Iwao) Hakamada, who was given a definitive death sentence on murder and robbery charges, were recently remanded by the Supreme Court to the Tokyo High Court.

The point I have just made would draw attention if the high court were soon to decide that a retrial should be opened.

Q: Is there a global trend for abolishing the death penalty?

A: More than 140 countries have either scrapped the death penalty system or suspended executions.

Of the 38 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Japan, the United States and South Korea are the only ones that have capital punishment.

In the United States, the Biden administration has suspended executions on the federal government level, and nearly half of all U.S. states have abolished the death penalty.

Executions have also been suspended for more than two decades in South Korea.

The U.N. General Assembly has adopted a resolution calling on U.N. members to suspend executions with an eye toward abolishing them.

Q: What punishment do you envisage as an alternative to the death penalty?

A: Some argue there should be life imprisonment with no parole. But such a punishment would leave inmates with nothing to live for. That would be another form of cruel punishment.

I think there should be a form of punishment where parole is considered on a case-by-case basis for inmates who have served a long time.


Q: In four successive government surveys conducted every five years since 2004, more than 80 percent of the respondents said they believed the presence of the death penalty system “cannot be helped.” The government has cited that public opinion as grounds for maintaining capital punishment. What do you think about that?

A: Heinous crimes of the sort committed by the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult tend to boost public support for death penalties. Such events intensify views that split people into either good or evil and deny criminals the chance to be rehabilitated.

I was also personally questioned by a member of the electorate if I was “taking sides with vicious criminals.”

It should be noted, however, that the survey respondents who said the presence of the death penalty “cannot be helped” were asked additional questions. Around 40 percent of them said they believe capital punishment may be abolished in the future if the situation changes.

I believe that careful debate will change public opinion. And for that to happen, the Justice Ministry should disclose more information on the death penalty.


Q: What is your take on the role of politicians toward abolishing the death penalty?

A: It is unrealistic to believe that a decision will be made to scrap the death penalty on the basis of public opinion surveys alone, as we take account of the cases in other countries.

I hope lawmakers and other politicians will engage in active debate among themselves, lead public opinion and set a trend for abolishing the death penalty. And the top leader of the nation should make the final decision on the matter.

Q: In reality, however, politicians appear slow in making such moves. Why is that?

A: The death penalty system is, in fact, a viable tool of government for those in power. Executions are convenient, because they can make it appear as if everything has been settled. But politicians should not be content with that.

Let us ask why heinous crimes have taken place.

There can be various factors, including the criminals’ family environment, education and poverty. Crimes will be repeated unless those genuine causes are addressed and settled.

(This article is based on an interview by Izumi Sakurai.)

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