Three death-row inmates went to the gallows Thursday, bringing to 10 the number of hangings approved by Jinen Nagase during his 11 months as justice minister.
It was the third set of executions in eight months.
The latest three executions came just four days before the scheduled Cabinet reshuffle, which is expected to see Nagase removed from his post.
Appointed last September by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Nagase had four inmates hanged on Christmas Day and three in April. No minister in the last 20 years has approved more executions than Nagase.
There are 103 death-row inmates in Japan following Thursday’s hangings.
Although the Justice Ministry did not reveal the names of the hanged inmates, Amnesty International Japan identified the men as Hihumi Takezawa, 69, Yoshio Iwamoto, 63, and Kozo Segawa, 60.
Takezawa and Iwamoto were executed at the Tokyo Detention House and Segawa at the Nagoya Detention House.
Nagase didn’t comment on Thursday’s executions. His predecessor, Seiken Sugiura, a devout Buddhist, never approved a hanging during his one-year stint as justice chief.
Takezawa, a former driver, murdered the owner of a Tochigi Prefecture-based construction company in 1990. He believed the victim was sheltering his wife. He also slaughtered a couple in Tochigi in 1993 after suspecting the male victim was having an affair with his wife.
Takezawa’s lawyers claimed he was suffering from a delusive disorder, but the death sentence was finalized in December 2000.
Yoshio Iwamoto was hanged for the 1996 slaying of a 40-year-old woman in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward during a robbery.
In 1997, he also murdered and stole ¥240,000 from a distant relative who owned a plating factory in Tokyo’s Taito Ward. Later investigations revealed he was in debt because of his pachinko habit.
Iwamoto owned up to the charges at court and had asked for capital punishment. His sentence was finalized in 2001.
Kozo Segawa shot to death the owner of a Toyama Prefecture-based temp-staff agency and the man’s wife in May 1991, and stole ¥12 million from their house.
He was also charged with other cases of fraud and theft. The Supreme Court finalized his sentence in January 2001.
Nagase’s approval of the hangings drew quick reactions from activists and lawmakers in opposition to the death penalty.
Facing reporters near the Justice Ministry, Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima denounced the executions, calling them “abhorrent.”
Upper House member Ryuhei Kawada, who was elected in July, added that the executions were “murders committed by the country” and said hanging the inmates “does not resolve any issues.”
Lawyer Yoshihiro Yasuda, a vocal opponent of capital punishment, criticized the executions, saying authorizing them is “abusive use of (ministerial) authority.”
Yasuda said Nagase’s action was irresponsible, particularly since he is expected to leave the Cabinet Monday. Nagase is involved in a scandal over a dubious donation to a foreign trainee body.
“I think the government also wants to demonstrate the importance of the death penalty before the lay-judge system is instituted,” Yasuda said. Under that system, to begin in 2009, citizens will serve as de facto jurors in some criminal trials alongside professional judges.
Yasuda once represented Shoko Asahara, founder of Aum Shinrikyo, which launched the fatal sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. He is now working for a defendant who received the death penalty for killing a woman and her infant daughter in Yamaguchi Prefecture in 1999.
In recent years, courts have tended to mete out heavier punishments. The number of death-row inmates has ballooned to 103, from 51 in 1997.
“This is an indication that (the government) intends to maintain public order by using force or violence,” he said, adding that the government should not go along with growing calls from victims of crimes for the death penalty.
Takeshi Tsuchimoto, a professor of criminal procedure law at Hakuoh University Law School in Tochigi Prefecture and a former prosecutor, said the increase of death penalty cases reflects the public’s desire for stricter punishment of criminals.
“The sentences that judges deliver reflect the public’s sense of justice of the age,” said Tsuchimoto, who as a prosecutor witnessed executions.
He believes the sarin attack was a turning point on the path to heavier punishments.
Tsuchimoto backed the justice minister in issuing 10 execution orders, noting the high number of inmates currently on death row in Japan.
“Ordering executions is one of the justice minister’s responsibilities as stipulated by law. So his decision should not be criticized,” he said.