The gallows, like much of the rest of Japan’s prison system, are shrouded in thick veils of government secrecy.

Executions are timed to coincide with Diet [parliamentary] recesses to avoid protests from opposition lawmakers; prison guards are forbidden from discussing their work; and few ordinary civilians have ever set foot inside an execution chamber. The Justice Ministry never releases the names of those they kill, only how many on a certain day, with the media relying on tips and contacts with families to name those executed.

Media inquiries are swatted away. The ministry declined to answer most of the questions put to it for this article, including who pushes the execution button, the number of inmates on death row, or even how many people are present during a hanging.

Three years ago, a small party of government ministers fought for and won the right to see the gallows, the first time in three decades that the Justice Ministry had granted access to a political delegation. In 2001, a human-rights group from the Council of Europe was refused permission to meet a death-row prisoner, despite a direct request from the prisoner. The group was told that meeting inmates “might disturb their peace of mind.” Instead, they were shown an empty cell.

Still, a handful of former insiders have illuminated Japan’s ultimate legal sanction and the people who carry it out.

According to writer and former executioner Toshio Sakamoto, prison guards are rotated every three years to prevent them building up feelings of empathy with their charges. Like the prisoners, they are only told that day when an execution is to be carried out.

Discussing the details of their work, or whether they have actually put a rope around somebody’s neck is “taboo,” says Sakamoto, who claims the stress of working on death row sends some to psychiatric hospitals.

“Nobody talks about the rights of the men who do this work,” he says. “No matter how psychologically strong they are, guards get mentally and physically exhausted serving inmates on death row, because it is truly cruel.”

Former prison guard-turned lawyer Yoshikuni Noguchi says that on the morning of an execution, two burly guards strong enough to control a resisting man take the condemned prisoner by each arm and lead him to a concrete-walled room. A Buddhist or Christian altar, the prison warders and a curtain concealing the other half of the room are among the last sights he will see. The curtain is pulled back to reveal a glass-encased room containing the gallows, and the prisoner is asked if he has any final words.

“It is not unusual for the men to say thanks to the guards, or apologize for causing them trouble,” Noguchi says.

Sakamoto, however, says he has seen men being dragged kicking and screaming to the gallows, calling out for their mothers.

Death-penalty opponents believe that inmates have been beaten if they resist, citing the case of Norio Nagayama, who was executed in 1997 and cremated before his lawyer could inspect his body.

Inside the execution chamber, three guards wait with hands on three buttons. The prisoner is handcuffed, hooded and bound at the feet and a rope is pulled around his neck. The guards push the buttons simultaneously, but do not know which one has been rigged to open the trapdoor on which the prisoner is standing.

Beneath the trapdoor, a doctor, waiting with a prison official, checks the heart of the hanged man. They wait for five minutes to make sure of death and then take the body down, put it in a coffin and take it to a prison morgue. In most cases, says Sakamoto, the bodies are never collected.

“Most of the time the remains are buried in the prison graveyard or the bodies are donated to hospitals for medical research,” he told a Japanese magazine recently.

Both men have come to different conclusions from their work.

Noguchi opposes executions and leads a group of campaigners trying to win more access to prisons. “Killing people won’t cut crime,” he says. “There’s absolutely no data to prove this, and there is always the possibility that innocent people will die.”

But in his book titled “Shikei wa ikani shikkou sareruka (How the death penalty is carried out),” Sakamoto says that the death penalty should be retained as the ultimate deterrent — but never used.

See related stories:
Japan’s way of judicial killing
One who has lived to tell the tale

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