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Last Friday, Japan executed doomsday cult leader Shoko Asahara and his six followers, who had been sentenced to death for the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 13 people in 1995. And, while this killing shocked the Japanese people for its unprecedented scale, it was not a surprise for those who had been following the case. The transfer of the condemned prisoners to different prisons had indicated preparations were underway to hang them in several locations. The government needed to separate the prisoners to finish their work under safe conditions.

In addition, it was clear that the impending resignation of Emperor Akihito in the next year would push the government to put an end to this shocking story so as to not to taint the next emperor’s era.

It was the largest number of people executed in Japan since 1998.

It was shocking news, and the Japanese people, most of them supporters of the death penalty (80 percent according to Reuters, which cited a 2015 government survey), reacted in different ways. Some expressed anxiety that there would be retaliation by cult members who still follow the teachings of Asahara, but with most insisting that the seven men deserved to be killed, and declaring their support for the government’s actions. 

Television news programs reported this mass killing extensively, and on Twitter there were many comments that TV shows were using this news as entertainment to attract viewers.

It seems that a few ordinary people did think about the basic issues of the death penalty and how it contradicts notions of human value and equality. When the government kills someone in an execution, it means that the state imitates the criminal. As the Italian philosopher, Cesare Beccaria, said hundreds of years ago, life in prison is more of a deterrent because it sets a long-term example, as opposed to a single instance of a violent execution.

In Japan there is only one execution method: hanging. Unlike the U.S., where there is much debate about various means of execution, especially surrounding the issues of lethal injection, Japan has continued to rely on hanging for over a hundred years — since 1880 — and there has been no real progress in finding a more humane method since then. 

Another difference is that in Japan, a death row inmate does not know the date of his execution until literally minutes before it occurs. The justice minister, who is responsible for the enforcement of his death sentence, gives the order, but death row inmates do not know the schedule. The Japanese government justifies this “ambush” based on the logic that if they know the plan, inmates may commit suicide. Additionally, officials maintain that if there is advance notice, not just the inmates, but also prison officers who are assigned the task of executing them, will experience intense mental pressure as well.

And still, even after this mass execution, there are six more members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult on death row who are awaiting the moment they will be killed. From my point of view, these people are really, really in a dangerous situation. I hope they can save their lives and atone for their crimes in any way other than by their deaths.

Takehiko Kawame is a member of the DPF Board of Directors. He is a lawyer and partner in the Japanese firm, Mockingbird. He is currently representing a condemned inmate on a post-conviction case in Japan. Kawame also launched a program in Kawagoe Prison, outside Tokyo, in which volunteers teach job interview skills to prisoners. He is a member of the Death Penalty Abolition Committee, Japan Federation of Bar Associations.

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