Nine members of the House of Representatives Judicial Affairs Committee visited the Tokyo Detention House in Katsushika Ward on Wednesday morning for a rare view of its execution chamber.
According to the judiciary committee, it was the first time in 30 years that the Justice Ministry has allowed outsiders to view any of its gallows.
Execution chambers are located in detention houses rather than prisons because the government regards death-row inmates as convicts awaiting the execution of their sentences, rather than those serving a prison term.
One of the committee members said the chamber is the size of a 15-tatami-mat room, and is separated into two sections. The inmate passes through a Buddhist altar room that houses a statue of the deity Amida nyorai before entering the actual gallows.
After completing the visit, the committee chairman, Yuji Yamamoto, said he felt that consideration was given so that inmates “could seek the path to heaven.”
“I bowed my head with solemnity” when seeing the chamber, he said. “I cannot help praying that we can one day become a country that does not have capital punishment.”
The Justice Ministry shrouds the execution system in almost complete secrecy.
It was only in November 1998 that the ministry began the practice of announcing execution dates and the number of death-row inmates executed.
The ministry still refuses to release the names of inmates after their execution or where the executions took place.
At a news conference Tuesday, Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama said the Justice Ministry agreed to allow the judiciary committee members to see the execution chamber at their request.
“This is a most important place,” Moriyama said, “and I told the committee that the committee itself has to express its wish” to see it.
Campaigners against the death penalty welcomed the showing of the facility as the first step toward overcoming the veil of secrecy.
Critics have long urged the government to make information about executions readily available so people can judge the pros or cons of the death penalty.
“It is a good move to show the execution facility, even only to the lawmakers, as the move will prompt people to think about capital punishment,” said Misaki Yagishita, a member of Amnesty International Japan.
Judicial authorities have been reluctant to show execution facilities.
In January 1994, reporters from 17 news organizations in Sapporo asked the detention house there to show them its execution facility two months after a death-row inmate was hanged.
The detention house rejected the request, saying, “It is inappropriate to open the facility in consideration of the sentiments of the families of death-row inmates as well as crime victims.”
Critics questioned this stance, saying the death penalty would not deter serious crimes nor satisfy families of crime victims if the government remains silent about executions.
“The government’s reluctance to disclose execution information . . . has no legal grounds,” said Koichi Kikuta, a Meiji University professor seeking the abolition of the death penalty. “I have to say it does not sound right to me if the government continues to refuse to disclose full information.
“For example, executioners should allow third parties to conduct mental checks of prisoners prior to executions and disclose the results so as not to stir up suspicion they might be killed even with a mental disorder.”
The international community has been urging Japan to abolish the death penalty.
The Council of Europe, an intergovernmental organization promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms, is planning to suspend Japan’s observer status unless executions are suspended.
Abolishing the death penalty is a condition of becoming a member of the Strasbourg-based council.
The Japan Parliamentary League Against the Death Penalty plans to submit a bill to the Diet to suspend executions for four years by introducing life imprisonment without parole. Members say the move is a milestone on the road to abolishing capital punishment.
It will be the first time since 1956 that a bill related to abolishing the death penalty is submitted to the Diet.