Execution joke costs Japan’s Justice Minister his job

Japanese Justice Minister Yasuhiro Hanashi (picture) stepped down after joking the only time he gets noticed is when he signs off on executions, becoming the second minister forced out in less than a month and dealing a fresh blow to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government.

Kishida told reporters he accepted Hanashi’s resignation Friday out of concern the remarks, which caused a wave of criticism as being inappropriate, could hamper discussion of important government policies. Dealing with the problem led the premier to delay his departure for a series of multilateral summits in Southeast Asia.

“I take seriously my responsibility for having appointed him,” Kishida said. “I want to fulfill my duties by dealing with the many problems facing us.”

Hanashi’s replacement, former Agriculture Minister Ken Saito is set to be appointed Friday, Kishida added. The premier will depart for Cambodia at 1 a.m. to attend Asean summit meetings as planned.

The incident comes as Kishida’s support rate falls to lows not seen since he took office in October 2021. The premier has been trying to repair damage from his economy minister stepping down last month after the disclosure of embarrassing ties between him and the Unification Church, which has a long list of court rulings against it in Japan over its fundraising methods.

While the premier need not face an election for more than two years, Kishida’s unpopularity weakens his control over the party and hampers policies he’s pledged such as a hike in defense spending for which he needs to find funding. The approval rating for Kishida’s cabinet fell 9 percentage points to 36% in a Yomiuri newspaper poll released Monday, the biggest fall in the daily’s survey since he took office.

Hanashi, a former police agency bureaucrat who became justice minister in August, joked at a political gathering Wednesday his job was “mundane” because it only makes the news when the minister applies his stamp to execution warrants. He subsequently apologized for the remarks.

Hanashi also said being in his post doesn’t get a person much money or votes, public broadcaster NHK and other local media reported. Criticism intensified when it was discovered he had made similar jokes repeatedly in the past. He received a public rebuke from Kishida, who told lawmakers he had warned his minister to speak carefully.

Japan is one of the few advanced nations to retain the death penalty, with four executions carried out since Kishida took office last year, although Hanashi himself did not preside over any during his term.

Although more than 70% of countries have abolished capital punishment in law or practice, according to the Death Penalty Information Center tracking agency, public opinion polls in Japan show broad support for retaining the system.

Those who receive capital punishment are executed by hanging and Japan has attracted criticism for only informing convicts immediately or a few hours before the sentence is carried out. – BLOOMBERG