Japan’s new justice minister, a veteran opponent of capital punishment, has ordered his staff to consider scrapping the death penalty.
“The time has come to look at the global situation and consider whether it is good to have this [death penalty] system,” said Satsuki Eda, who was named justice minister in a cabinet reshuffle last week.
A study group set up by the justice ministry would consider abolition under its review of capital punishment, said Mr Eda, who is the fourth person to serve as justice minister since the ruling Democratic party’s landmark general election win in September 2009.
Japanese campaigners against the death penalty suffered a setback last year when the DPJ’s first justice minister, Keiko Chiba, put aside her long-standing opposition to capital punishment and authorised the hanging of two murderers.
Mr Eda appears markedly more willing than Ms Chiba or her two successors to publicly question the use of capital punishment. In his first press conference last week Mr Eda described it as a “defective” punishment, highlighting the impossibility of undoing erroneous executions.
However, the weakness of the DPJ government and high levels of public support for the death penalty mean rapid action is unlikely.
Some human rights activists are concerned that notoriously conservative justice ministry bureaucrats will be able to dominate the review.
“Currently the study group is set up inside the Ministry of Justice, and this means it is likely to back the current practice,” said Makoto Teranaka, secretary-general of Amnesty International. Mr Teranaka was also disappointed that Mr Eda had not announced a moratorium on executions.
Even if the review stops short of recommending abolition, it could clear the way for changes to the secretive system under which prisoners are kept in near-isolation – sometimes for decades – with no way of knowing if it is their last day.
Amnesty has accused Japan of breaking its commitment to international standards by executing mentally ill prisoners and has protested against the restrictive regime under which it says condemned prisoners are not allowed to move around cells, apart from toilet visits.
The number of people sentenced to death in Japan fell to 14 last year from 20 in 2009, but the slow pace of executions means that the number of death row inmates has reached 111, the highest since 1949.