Even though I live in America, a country with a questionable (to say the least) justice system, the Japanese justice system sometimes seems much more harsh (just take a look at Japanese drugs laws).
But the more I learn about the death penalty in Japan, the ultimate punishment in the Japanese justice system, the more I’m upset by what I hear. For one, Japan is one of the few developed countries in the world to still carry out the death penalty.
Sure, the number of executions that Texas alone carries out dwarfs Japan’s, but I’d wager to say that the path to execution in Japan is much more opaque and convoluted than it is here in the USA.
In the US there are a lot of safeguards for the death penalty in a lot of states. Long series of appeals often makes a death sentence a decades-long legal battle in America; but in Japan, the path to execution is a lot straighter, shorter, and simpler.
For one, trial by jury, a fundamental element of the American justice system, doesn’t exist the in the same way in Japan. Jury duty might seem like a pain to a lot of Americans, but it’s still an important part of civic life and lets ordinary people be involved in the system.
It wasn’t until very recently (2009) that the Japanese implemented any sort of system where ordinary people helped judge criminal cases, and it’s a lot more complicated than America’s trial by jury system.
In America, there’s one judge and a jury; in Japan, there are a total of nine judges: three are professional judges and six are lay judges, ordinary people picked to sit in.
Confused yet? It gets even more complicated: a verdict can only be reached if a majority with at least one member from each group comes to a consensus, and these lay judges are only used for certain types of cases.
And the principles of presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt that are so important in the American justice system aren’t considered as much in the Japanese system.
If you’re prosecuted for a crime in Japan, then you’ll almost certainly be convicted. Japan has over a 99% conviction rate, which leads to pretty lousy chances of being found innocent. It’s apparently pretty common for Japanese defense lawyers to have only a handful of victories under their belts during the course of their careers.
How do the Japanese achieve such a high conviction rate? A large part of it is long and intense interrogations that prisoners go through, which leads to lots of confessions. Unfortunately, if you interrogate anybody for that long, they’ll say pretty much whatever you want, meaning a lot of those confessions are false.
The Escapist has a really interesting write-up about how Phoenix Wright accurately represents the Japanese justice system with surprising accuracy, if you’re into that.
But once a suspect is convicted and receives a death sentence, things go from bad to worse. Turns out, death row isn’t as cool as Suge Knight made it out to be.
In the US, press and officials often witness the execution, and the prisoner gets last rites, last words, and a last meal (unless somebody ruins it for everybody).
Executions in Japan are a lot less ceremonial and predictable. Convicts on death row usually don’t know when they’ll be executed until a few hours beforehand, and their families might only find out after the fact.
To this day, Japan’s method of execution is hanging, a practice that seems almost primitive compared to the more humane options for execution practiced in other parts of the world.
The picture seems kind of bleak, but things are (believe it or not) looking up. A series of legal reforms in the mid-2000s added the lay judges mentioned earlier, and human rights advocates in Japan and across the world have been making their voices heard. Several former Japanese Justice Ministers have rallied against the death penalty and even refused to sign execution warrants.
For the over 100 prisoners on Japan’s death row, there’s still hope.