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85.6% of Japanese Public Supports Capital Punishment…Really?

amnestyI have been assessing the extent to which the EU can try and urge Japan to change its accepted norms on human rights regarding capital punishment, and came across this article the other day:

Japan Today (2010) “Record High 85.6% in Favor of Death Penalty: Survey”, 7 February, 2010. URL:

Original article in Japanese is:
Asahi (2010) “Shikei, “Yamu wo enai” Kako Saiko no 85.6% naikakufu Chosa (Capital Punishment: The Government Poll marked 85.6% of Public Support as “Unavoidable”), 6 June, 2010.

Government poll is conducted every five years toward 3,000 men and women aged 20 or older nationwide, and according to this article, the result in 2009 revealed that the public support reached 85.6%, the highest ratio ever compared to 81.4% in 2004; 79.3% in 1999; and 73.8% in 1994 (Asahi 2010:1; Japan Today 2010:2). Although Japan has an exceptionally low crime rate, the article explains that increasing numbers of discriminate murder cases such as a stabbing rampage case in Akihabara, Tokyo, in 2008 has been accelerating such domestic trend (Japan Today 2010:2). It can be also said that emotional argument such as “an eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth” might be still predominant especially amongst the families of the victims.

Having said that, it is highly questionable if the percentage of the public support really indicates the opinion of a vast majority. Regarding the right and wrong of capital punishment in the government poll, the choices were the following three: “it is unavoidable in certain circumstances”; “it should be abolished in any circumstances”; and “I do not know” with the result of 85.6%, 5.7% and 8.6% respectively (Asahi 2010:1). The government has been conducting the poll with exactly the same questions and choices since 1994, however, it is obvious that the answer that the government is in favour of is meant to be drawn. First choice sounds quite neutral since it poses some condition with the term “in certain circumstances” compared to “in any circumstances” in the second choice. In other words, the result of “85.6%” could actually indicate the opinion of the public who do not necessarily support capital punishment, but want to leave the system as it is fearing the outcome such as an increase of crime after abolishment.

Public opinion can thus vary to a great extent depending on what agency conducts the survey with which purpose. Peter J. Katzenstein (1996:80) argues in The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics that the role of public opinion in shaping norms is highly significant in Japan and it can act as a brake or even as an executive power in policymaking. However, it is quite dangerous to give “actorness” to the public opinion since a great weight is given to it on purpose to justify the government policy from time to time.

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