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How Japan Uses Low Crime Rates To Justify Its Cruel Prison System

The death penalty is alive and well in the land of the rising sun -- and death row is particularly wretched.

Public order comes at a high price in Japan
Public order comes at a high price in Japan
Phillipe Pons

TOKYO – On Feb. 21, Japan hanged three death-row inmates. These executions, the first in 18 months, took place only a few months after Shinzo Abe"s new government took office.

There is no question as to whether Abe will use his mandate to abolish the death penalty. During his previous stint as Prime Minister in 2006-2007, ten people were hanged in less than a year.

The last executions have prompted no public debate. According to polls, the majority of Japanese people support the death penalty, and there are very few vocal abolitionists. Japan is one of the only industrialized country to retain capital punishment, along with the U.S. and South Korea.

Although the deterrent effect of the death penalty is debated by criminologists, the Japanese government argues that having the lowest crime rate in the OECD justifies having the death penalty, as well as extremely tough prison conditions. Public order comes at a high price in Japan – the price of prisoner rights and the presumption of innocence.

Executions, which are carried out by hanging, are shrouded in secrecy. Family members are only informed about the executions after the fact. Death row inmates are held in isolation, without the possibility of communicating with other detainees. They can await their executions for months, sometimes years. Every day, at dawn, they count the steps of the guards in the corridors – if there are more than normal, it means that there will be an execution.

Masao Akahori lived through this anguish for 31 years, before being retried and found innocent. One day, the guards opened his cell door and were about to say the dreaded words – "your time has come" – when they realized they were in the wrong cell.

There are currently 134 prisoners in Japan waiting to be executed, the largest number ever in the history of the country. Some Justice Ministers establish a de facto moratorium by not signing any execution orders. This was the case from July 2010 to March 2012, but most of them sign the orders.

On death row, as in the rest of Japanese prisons, the living conditions are particularly harsh. Since the end of the 1960s, the prisons are ruled with an iron fist. “It is forbidden to speak; you must look straight ahead,” read the signs. The workshops and mess halls are silent. Prisoners, wearing green uniforms, sandals and caps, are only allowed to talk to each other during their 15-minute breaks or after dinner. They walk in a straight line, arms along their body, eyes fixed on the neck of the prisoner in front of them. Cavity searches take place twice a day.

No transparency

This kind of extreme discipline is considered to be totally antiquated by other industrialized countries – the Japanese penal laws date back to 1908. But the Japanese say that their system allows them to avoid the problems plaguing most Western prisonsriots, drugs, assaults on guards, brawls and escapes.

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Tokyo Detention Center - Photo: PekePON / GNU

The problem is that that there is no transparency in the 188 prisons and detention centers, something that allows for abuses of power. Prisoners are sometimes placed in isolation for more than 60 days, and the leather handcuffs that violent or unruly prisoners are forced to wear can cause suffocation. The harshness of prison conditions is meant to instill a “sense of shame” in the prisoner whose offense or crime falls within a “loss of moral sense.”

Another expression of the Japanese authorities’ discretionary power is police custody. An arrested person can be held in detention for 23 days without having access to a lawyer or being formally charged.

Many people crack under pressure and confess to crimes they haven’t done. Almost all convictions are obtained thanks to “confessions.” In 2012, a Nepalese man sentenced to life imprisonment was found not guilty of a crime for which he served 15 years in jail and had always claimed he was innocent of. The introduction of the jury system in 2009 does not seem to have changed much.

Even though its prison conditions are very difficult, Japan incarcerates fewer people than in other developed countries. There are 55 prisoners for every 100,000 habitants, against 149 in the UK, 716 in the U.S. and 99 in France. Repeat offenses are also lower than anywhere else.

The low crime rate in Japan can be explained by other factors than its repressive system, most notably a severe legislation in regard to firearms. Gun ownership was banned in 1965 and penalties are very severe. In 2012, there were only 45 firearm-related crimes (killing eight people), of which 33 were gang-related. But even Japanese mobsters have a tough time finding guns on the black market. The tiny neighborhood police stations that are integrated into local life have also contributed to the safety of the cities.

Japan's low crime rate is enviable, but it should not exempt the country from treating its prisoners justly.

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Photo of a drone on the tarmac during a military exercise near Vícenice, in the Czech Republic

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