10 January 2023
TOKYO — British Ambassador to Japan Julia Longbottom has been vocal about Japan’s continued use of capital punishment — a rare move for a sitting envoy. In October 2022, she delivered a speech calling for Japan to end the death penalty at former Justice Minister Seiken Sugiura’s 88th birthday party attended by some 210 guests, including current Cabinet members.
In the U.K., life imprisonment was made applicable to all premediated murders when a five-year legislative freeze on capital punishment was passed in 1965. This change was led mainly by lawmakers. In 1969, this suspension was made permanent, except for treason and certain other offenses, based on factors including that no major change was seen in violent crime figures during the five years. The death penalty was finally abolished in 1998.
The negative aspects of Japan continuing capital punishment have been pointed out in relation to international cooperation on criminal investigations. The U.K., for example, has extradition treaties with more than 100 countries. Japan only has two, with the United States and South Korea, both of which still have the death penalty on the books (though no execution has been carried out in South Korea since 1997).
It’s believed that countries that don’t have capital punishment are hesitant to hand criminals over to those that do. Ambassador Longbottom also touched on the diplomatic effects of the death penalty at a Dec. 7 meeting of a Japanese multipartisan parliamentary group discussing the future of capital punishment in Japan, stressing the importance of political leadership to make changes.
The Mainichi Shimbun recently sat with Ambassador Longbottom for an interview and asked why she continues to raise her voice over the issue. It has been edited for length and clarity.
The Mainichi Shimbun: What do you think are the concerns in the U.K.-Japan relationship caused by the existence of the death penalty in Japan?
Ambassador Longbottom: The U.K. and Japan are such close friends and agree on so many things, but the death penalty is one critical topic where we differ … From the early ’90s when I first came to Japan (as the second secretary to the ambassador), we were very focused on economics and trade, but now we’re focused on everything — from defense and security moving closer and closer to everything from climate change to science to digital … The areas where the death penalty can create something of an issue include things like close collaboration or information sharing in policing, or judicial cases where we have to think very carefully before we share information with Japanese authorities if there is any risk of that case involving the death penalty. So that’s one example. But if we are becoming really close partners in very sensitive areas of defense and technology, it feels like a hurdle to full and open sharing of information and values.
We want to encourage a greater debate in Japan on the death penalty … When they hear that Japan does have the death penalty, British people are very shocked because they think that Japan is a democratic, harmonious, sort of sympathetic and sophisticated society. And the death penalty sits very badly with that image.
MS: One of the reasons why the death penalty is difficult to abolish in Japan is that 80% of the public supports it.
AL: During the 1960s in the U.K., 70 to 80% of the public supported the death penalty, and yet it was possible to abolish it. And the government in 1965, in spite of that public opinion, agreed to suspend the death penalty for a period of five years, and then in 1969 decided to abolish it in almost all cases. I think it was about political leadership and courage and to do what’s right and to lead opinion rather than follow public opinion.
We also found, or find that once political leadership is exercised, public opinion can shift. So for example, in the U.K. support for capital punishment in 1986 was still 74%, but now it’s just 40% in 2022. But it was only eight years ago in 2014 that it dropped below 50%. So even after we abolished it, public opinion still favored the death penalty. So not waiting for public opinion to shift, but political leadership acting, we think is very important. The government does have a responsibility, politics does have a responsibility to inform and educate and explain to the public these important issues. They (politicians) are the people who have the power to do something and to lead a change.
MS: What do you think of the influence of the death penalty’s abolition on bereaved families?
AL: In the U.K. I don’t think the system was ever perceived to be a way to provide solace to the families. It was because it was assumed that the death penalty was a deterrent … there is no evidence to prove that the death penalty acts as a deterrent.
There was the case of at least two innocent men were hanged — Timothy Evans in 1950 and Derek Bentley in 1953. So these cases played a major part in the debate, and eventually the removal of capital punishment for murder in 1965. We just need to recognize that any system managed by human beings is fallible, error is possible. And that’s why, where you have a sentence, a death penalty, which is irreversible and can’t be changed, I think we have to be extremely careful.
The British government is actually increasing its support to families bereaved through homicide or through murder, recognizing they need particular support to cope psychologically and financially, and to recover from the impact. The U.K.’s Ministry of Justice is increasing funding for victim and witness support services.
MS: Inmates on death row in Japan are severely restricted from contact with the outside world, and they don’t find out about their execution until right before it happens. What’s your opinion on the current situation regarding death row inmate treatment and information disclosure?
AL: Basic human rights apply to everybody, whatever their situation, in prison, on death row (or) in normal society. And I think there should be scope to review in Japan this limited access to inmates on death row in line with international standards … Particularly to not allow the family to say their final goodbye, it feels very tragic. I also find the method of execution by hanging problematic.
The fact that there isn’t any information means there is no basis for a discussion in Japan about what is humane in terms of execution at all, or the method of execution. And I think a mature democracy should be prepared to be open about that kind of information, to allow informed debate, both politically and among the public.
(Interview by Hiromi Nagano, Tokyo City News Department)
Japan and the United States are the only countries among the 38 advanced industrial nations that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to have the death penalty and continue to carry out executions, though of the 50 states in the U.S., 23 have abolished capital punishment. Abolishment of the death penalty is a membership requirement for the European Union, and Belarus is the only country in Europe to maintain capital punishment. #