i.m. Troy Davis: mourn, and organise
Yoshimura Akira’s bestseller On Parole ends as its story begins, with grisly and intense violence, a ‘crime of passion’ and, eventually, death. The literary and the populist meet in this finale: the figure of the frenzied killer – draw here from Maurice Gee’s Loving Ways or David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet or Yoshimura’s own Kikutani Shiro, amidst countless other examples – is familiar to us from both ‘liberal’ literary production and right-wing law-and-order, ‘sensible sentencing’ shrillness. It’s an easy way of thinking about crime, and criminals, and manages to be at once frightening and comforting, both in ways helpful for class rule. Imagining criminal behaviour as, in the main, wild and unfathomable is terrifying for the obvious reasons (I have those worries walking home too); the comfort, for a section of middle-class society, is in the way the figure functions as a screen, allowing the projection of certain racial- and class-based fears while at the same time relieving ‘us’ of responsibility for reflecting on what might lead other people to commit awful acts. Tough on Crime never ended up, in the NewLabour cliché, Tough on the Causes of Crime.
Japan is no worse than many other ‘developed’ country in this respect, although it’s hardly better either, and its reputation abroad for social cohesion obscures some deep injustices and cruel – but all too usual – punishments worked into its social order. The current Minister of Justice may have called for a ‘debate’ on the status of the death penalty, and Keiko Chiba, minister a few administrations ago, was an abolitionist of sorts, but the death penalty still stands, and its popularity, and practice, disfigure Japanese society.
David McNeill, in the English-language press, has worked over some years now to document the criminality of Japan’s criminal justice system. (Critical examination of the death penalty in the Japanese media, including ‘liberal’ papers like the Asahi, is extremely rare.) The period after sentencing is, for prisoners, a form of torture itself: many never know when their execution is scheduled and have limited, or no, access to journalists, lawyers, and campaigners in the world outside. Years can be spent in a state of perpetual uncertainty and isolation.
Public support for capital punishment is, by all accounts, high, and seems, in many cases, to be linked to a sense that justice is served by executions: criminals have confessed to their crimes, and must be held responsible. Whatever the wider questions over how executions serve ‘justice’, though, the role of confessions themselves need examined. Between 1991 and 2000 over 99% of defendants in Japanese courts were convicted, many as a result of confessions they’d given to police.
An aside here: one disturbing aspect of Death Note’s popularity has been the support, anecdotally, I’ve noticed from readers for Light’s actions. The ethical ‘dilemma’ of the series revolves almost entirely around Light’s decision, not around his knowledge: the idea that those who commit (or might be about to commit) crimes can so easily be classed into ‘villains’ and ‘others’ never seems to have excited much in the way of objection or comment.
But ‘confessions’ reveal as much about police corruption and the lack of democratic rights for Japanese citizens as they do about any individual’s guilt. Consider the case of Sugiya Toshikazu, convicted for murder in the early 1990s. In an extraordinary development, DNA evidence helped him have his conviction overturned few years ago; each detail of the case until then had been all too ordinary. Police held him for 13 hour interrogations, kicking at his shins, and shouting at him; a confession secured in these conditions carries great weight in a Japanese court. It’s impossible to know whether, had Sugiya received a death sentence, the new evidence would have been produced in time to save his life. In a recent corruption case police admitted forcing suspects they were interrogating to trample on names of their relatives – a way of ‘breaking’ suspects that can be traced back to anti-Christian torture from the Tokugawa period – and, although in this instance their actions were criticised, the practice seems widespread. Incompetent defence lawyers, an uninterested media, severely curtailed democratic rights: all this leads to a set-up where the kinds of protections social movements and workers’ struggles have won in other judiciaries are largely missing from Japanese legal reality. The sociology of the courts matters too: Japanese judges have very rarely served as lawyers, being appointed to the bench straight from law school, and both prosecutors and judges are drawn from, and sustain, a very narrow social world of class comfort and class rule.
There is an abolitionist movement in Japan, and its smallness and current marginality haven’t demoralised its activists: one Osaka group call themselves the “Snail Society” in recognition of their massive task, and slow progress, in the face of an entrenched, if unjustifiable, criminal practice. There are occasional protests and events, a few Buddhist ministers in recent years have allowed their own consciences to get the better of them.
Our side is yet to find its ‘bestseller’ moment, though, and the fears both produced and managed by a work like On Parole indicate the terrain the abolitionist battle is being fought around. The courage and perseverance of the Japanese abolitionists seems, then, all the more inspiring and essential.
There is plenty of useful information at the Japan and the Death Penalty Research Centre, and at Amnesty International. The Monsoon blog (in Japanese), associated with the Kakehashi newspaper, has some useful links.
Mark D West’s Lovesick Japan (Cornell 2011) is a fascinating study of Japanese judges and their social attitudes and formation.