TOKYO — Japanese bar associations have formally adopted a policy against the death penalty for the first time, demanding the government abolish execution by 2020 when Japan hosts the Olympics and an international conference on criminal justice.
The Japan Federation of Bar Associations urged the government Friday to introduce life imprisonment to replace execution.
Japan has one of the world’s lowest murder rates, making the need for capital punishment unconvincing, the federation said. It also cited the risk of wrongful convictions and the lack of evidence that the death penalty reduces crime.
Nearly 130 prisoners are on death row in Japan, according to justice officials. Crimes subject to a possible death penalty in Japan include murder and acts such as arson or sabotage that cause death, usually in the most egregious cases or involving multiple victims, as well as terrorist attacks and attempted coups.
“We should face the fact that the death penalty … is a serious and grave violation of human rights by the state,” the group said in a statement, adopted after heated debate and objection by opponents at a convention in Fukui, western Japan.
The statement said the possibility of mistrials and wrongful accusations could not be denied. “Once carried out, the death penalty is irreversible and fundamentally different from other punishment.”
Four death row prisoners have been found innocent and released after being granted retrials since the 1980s, including former professional boxer Iwao Hakamada, who won release in 2014 after nearly 50 years on death row for a wrongful murder accusation.
Japan and the U.S. are the only Group of Seven members that maintain the death penalty, while 140 nations have ended the practice that opponents consider cruel.
The prospect of any change is unclear as the majority of Japanese still support the death penalty.
Some lawyers favor keeping the capital punishment as a way to address the victims’ feelings. At Friday’s convention, a group of lawyers handed out leaflets, unsuccessfully trying to vote down the federation-wide policy.
Membership in a local bar association is compulsory for Japan’s more than 37,000 lawyers, and its members include a few hundred other people, such as foreign lawyers.