Japan’s application of the death penalty is cruel, secretive and out of step with much of the developed world, say its opponents. As a record 102 inmates now wait on death row for the hangman’s noose, in this JT review of the capital-punishment system, the one man alive and free who knows the true horrors those condemned men and women face speaks exclusively to The Japan Times.

After breakfast on Christmas Day, 2006, three Japanese pensioners and a middle-aged former taxi driver were given an hour to live. The men were told to clean their cells, say their prayers and write a will. Yoshio Fujinami, 75, scribbled a note to his supporters before he was taken to the gallows in the Tokyo Detention Center in a wheelchair.

“I cannot walk by myself, I am ill and yet you still kill such a person,” he wrote. “I should be the last person executed.”

Also struggling to walk, partially blind Yoshimitsu Akiyama, 77, had to be helped by prison guards to the execution chamber. Both men were still appealing their convictions for murder.

Fujinami attacked his ex-wife’s family with a knife in Tochigi Prefecture in 1981, killing two of her brothers and robbing the family. His defense lawyers argued that he was addicted to amphetamines and had snapped after his in-laws prevented him from meeting his estranged wife.

Akiyama was convicted of murdering a factory boss in Chiba in 1975 and robbing him of 10 million yen. For the rest of his life, he maintained that his brother Taro, who was convicted of a lesser offense in the incident, bore most responsibility for the crime.

Michio Fukuoka, 64, also claimed he was innocent of killing three people, including his wife’s sister, over three years between 1978 and 1981 in Kochi Prefecture in Shikoku. He protested to the end that the police forced his confession and ignored his alibi.

The fourth man hanged on Christmas Day morning, 44-year-old Hiroaki Hidaka, was a serial killer who had lured four women, including a 16-year-old high-school student, into the taxi he drove in Hiroshima before raping, robbing and murdering them in 1996. He rejected his lawyer’s appeals for a stay of execution, saying he wanted to die.

All four were hanged with military precision at three different prisons within minutes of each other; blindfolded, handcuffed and bound at the ankles as a 3-cm-thick rope was slipped around their necks and tightened before a trapdoor opened beneath their feet.

The men had a collective age of 260, and some had waited a quarter of a century for the hangman’s rope, fearful — since the condemned in Japan are given no warning of their impending execution — that every day would be their last. By the time families, friends, lawyers and supporters were told, their bodies were already growing cold in prison morgues. Relatives — if the men had any, and if they cared — were given 24 hours to pick up the corpses.

According to Amnesty International, 102 people — 97 men and 5 women — are now waiting to be hanged in one of Japan’s seven execution chambers — the largest number in over half a century.

Japan’s hangmen are undeterred by age, senility or handicap: The condemned include 86-year-old Tomizo Ishida, convicted on a 1973/74 rape and double murder charge, and 81-year-old Okunishi Masaru, who has for more than 40 years protested his innocence in the fatal poisoning of five women. Opponents believe that several death-row inmates are clinically insane, driven mad by the burden of living in solitary confinement as all condemned prisoners in Japan do, and sometimes waiting decades for prison guards to fatefully stop one morning outside their cell doors.

“There has been a clear tendency since the year 2000 for a rise in the number of death sentences, a phenomenon related to the crime situation,” says Makoto Teranaka of Amnesty International Japan.

“The Police Agency repeatedly emphasizes that serious crime is worsening, but the statistics don’t show this. What is true is that the police have made more new crimes, such as stalking, and that media coverage has enormously expanded, so we have a kind of moral panic, with people talking about crime much more.”

Teranaka sees the death penalty as a “symbolic” issue. “The government is using the image of rising crime to introduce its own methods to control the social order,” he said — adding that he fears that the number of executions will continue to rise as a result.

Despite the recent expansion in the prison population, Japan incarcerates its citizens at a far lower rate than most developed countries: 58 per 100,000 people in 2005 compared to 142 in Britain and 726 in the United States. It also executes fewer people than either the U.S. or China, the world’s leading death-penalty states. The Japanese Justice Ministry can also point to low rates of recidivism, and — for some the ultimate test — safer streets than in most other countries.

But Japan is bucking a worldwide abolitionist trend, with 128 countries having scrapped the death sentence, including the Philippines and Cambodia, and South Korea and Taiwan debating abolition. Moreover, support for state killings is increasing in Japan. A 2005 government poll found that, for the first time, the number of Japanese people in favor of the death penalty topped 80 percent — a rise of over 23 percent since 1975. Just 6 percent wanted the system abolished.

Why is Japan swimming against the tide? Activists cite a lack of debate. “There is no discussion about this in the media,” says Nobuto Hosaka, secretary general of the Parliamentary League for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. “Even in the Diet, the death penalty is something of a taboo because most lawmakers know the abolitionist cause is unpopular. It has become a vicious circle: Politicians don’t discuss it and the public doesn’t hear the abolitionist case, so the politicians continue to avoid it.”

Hosaka says the Christian lobby in most other countries, including in European states, the Philippines and South Korea, has been a major factor in moving those countries toward abolition, despite often strong public support for executions.

“Religious groups in Japan cooperate in the death penalty,” he said.

In Japan, the system has proved immune to condemnations from the Council of Europe, Amnesty International, the United Nations Human Rights Commission and Japan’s own abolitionist lawmakers, such as Social Democratic Party of Japan President Mizuho Fukushima and SDP Lower House lawmaker Reiko Oshima. It has also survived a brief moratorium on executions from 1990 to 1992 (seven people were executed the following year) and the tenure of justice ministers who apparently opposed state killings, including the devoutly religious Megumu Sato, who held the post during the moratorium, and Seiken Sugiura, who refused to sign execution orders while he was in office last year.

But eventually, Japan’s all-powerful bureaucracy reimposes its will, as it did last Christmas.

“We absolutely wanted to avoid ending the year with zero executions,” an anonymous Justice Ministry official told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper after the Christmas Day hangings. The official said the system would “break down” if the number of death-row inmates exceeded 100. New Justice Minister Jinen Nagase has reasserted government policy.

The special cruelties of death row in Japan have been widely criticized: inmates are deprived of contact with the outside world in a policy designed “to avoid disturbing their peace of mind,” say ministry officials; they are kept in solitary confinement and forced to wait an average of more than seven years, and sometimes for decades, in toilet-sized cells while the legal system grinds on.

Decisions about who is to be executed and when often seem arbitrary, but when the order eventually comes, implementation is swift: The condemned have literally minutes to get their affairs in order before facing the noose. There is no time to say goodbye to families. Because the execution orders can come at any time, the inmates, in effect, live each day believing it to be their last.

It is the high probability of mistakes, however, that really keeps opponents awake at night.

Half a century after the torture and framing of Sakae Menda, the criminal courts still rely heavily on confessions for proof of guilt.

“Nothing has changed since I was arrested,” says Menda. Extravagant displays of remorse are prized, and failure to admit a crime is frowned on — notwithstanding the right to silence or even innocence of the charge.

So, with up to 23 days to interrogate a suspect before their detention needs to be reviewed before a judge, the police have every incentive to increase the conviction rate by extracting a confession — and the blunt legal tools to do so.

“It is almost certain that there are more innocent people waiting to be executed in Japan,” claims Akira Ishikawa, secretary to the SDP leader Fukushima, who is one of the country’s leading abolitionists.

About half of the people on death row reportedly claim they are not guilty of all or part of the crimes for which they have been condemned.

They include former pro-boxer Iwao Hakamada, a death-row inmate who has protested his innocence of murdering a family in Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, for four decades. One of the three judges who sentenced Hakamada in 1968 said last month he believes he deserves a retrial.

“I thought (the evidence produced at the trial) did not make sense,” said Norimichi Kumamoto, who nevertheless went along at the time with the 360-page judgment issued by the three-judge bench.

Hakamada’s application for a retrial has been rejected by the Tokyo High Court and the Supreme Court.

Critics of police methods have been heartened by the acquittal last month in Kagoshima District Court of 12 people accused of vote-buying in 2003 prefectural elections. The presiding judge ruled that the 12 “appear to have made confessions in despair while going through marathon investigations” by police who “likely goaded them to confess.”

The Kagoshima police chief who presided over the investigation, Katsuji Inaba, has since been promoted to a senior position in the Kanto National Police Agency, suggesting there seems little real momentum to reform the criminal justice system in Japan. Also, with growing cracks opening up in the long-lauded homogenous social landscape of what current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe likes to refer to as “beautiful Japan,” and lurid crime stories never far from the front pages, some believe the police, courts and judges will fall back on the tried-and-tested methods that sent Menda to prison for 34 years.

“The government is using the image of rising crime to introduce their own methods to control the social order,” says Teranaka.

“I fear that the number of executions will continue to rise.”

The condemned’s last steps toward oblivion

In his 2003 book titled “Shikei wa ikani shikkou sareruka (How the death penalty is carried out),” former death-row prison guard Toshio Sakamoto includes a section graphically illustrating what no cameras are allowed to record — the last moments in a condemned prisoner’s life. Here, a selection of illustrated pages from Sakamoto’s book gives a chilling taste of capital punishment in action in Japan.

News photo Dead man’s daybreak: A prison guard comes into a 28-year-old death-row inmate’s cell one morning (left). The guard only tells the inmate to accompany him “to the office,” but the inmate soon realizes that he is
being led elsewhere.
Reality dawns: The inmate is taken to a room where a spiritual adviser awaits (right). By now he knows
exactly what is happening to him. He is told he is allowed to write a last letter.
News photo
News photo The last breath: Having written his final letter, the inmate is blindfolded, handcuffed and bound around the ankles, with death now only moments away.
The guards’ perspective: Prison officers blindfold and handcuff the condemned inmate, put a rope around his neck and position him standing on the trapdoor of the gallows. On a signal, three guards then press
buttons that open the trapdoor.
News photo
News photo Job done: The trapdoor opens and the inmate is hanged.
Disposal: Guards pull down the body after waiting 5 minutes to ensure death. Then a doctor checks there are no life signs before the cadaver is put in a coffin and taken to the prison morgue. In most cases,
the bodies are never collected and are either buried in the prison graveyard or donated to a hospital for
use in medical research.
News photo

See related stories:
One who has lived to tell the tale
‘Killing people won’t cut crime; there’s no data to prove this’

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