When his body isn’t groaning under the weight of its 81 years, and the sun is shining in the skies over his native Kyushu, Sakae Menda sometimes forgets the ordeal he suffered and knows he is lucky to be alive.

But most days, there is no blotting out that the Japanese state stole 34 years of his life, or that he thought every one of those 12,410 days would be his last. “Waiting to die is a kind of torture,” he says, “worse than death itself.”

Early on Dec. 30, 1948, a killer broke into the house of a priest and his wife in Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu and used a knife and an ax to murder them and wound their two young daughters. In the dirt-poor early postwar years, life was cheap and black markets flourished in most parts of Japan. The killer could have been anyone — but penniless, uneducated farmhand Menda was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was arrested over a separate crime of stealing brown rice.

The police held Menda for three weeks, without allowing him access to a lawyer, until they extracted a confession. During interrogation, the 23-year-old was starved of food, water and sleep and beaten with bamboo sticks while being suspended upside down from a ceiling. Menda signed a statement written by the cops and was convicted of double homicide on Christmas Day 1951. He wouldn’t step outside Fukuoka Prison until 1983.

Screaming so long

For Menda, life shrank to a 5-sq.-meter, unheated, solitary cell that was lit day and night and monitored constantly. His parents cut him off. “They came once before sentencing. Even after I filed for a retrial and sent them letters, they didn’t want to accept that I was innocent.”

He says they came again after he appealed to them via a friend. “After that, they came to see me when they [legally] disowned me. That was the last of it.”

Menda tells of hearing from his cell for the first time one of his fellow inmates dragged to the gallows. It was an event, he says, that made him “insane,” and caused him to scream so long that he was awarded chobatsu [punishment] — in that case, two months with his hands cuffed so he had to eat like an animal.

Every morning though, after breakfast between 8 and 8:30 a.m. — when the execution squads would come — the terror of this being his last day began afresh.

“The guards would stop at your door, your heart would pound and then they would move on and you could breathe again,” he vividly recalls.

Menda would watch dozens more inmates carted off to the gallows.

“The men would yell out as they left: ‘I will be going first and will be waiting for you,’ ” he once told Australian TV, saying there were “no words” to describe the feelings of those left behind. Menda’s wife Tamae [whom he married after his release] calls it a “miracle” he stayed sane.”He is very short-tempered and stubborn,” she says. “I think he survived because he wasn’t educated and couldn’t make sense of what he was going through.”

The abyss was never far away, but the closest Menda came to walking over the edge was when his Buddhist chaplain told him to accept his fate.

“I asked him why, and he said because Buddhist teaching says, ‘As a man sows, so shall he reap.’ He told me that it was decided in my previous life that I was to be executed, and that unless I accept what was handed to me, my parents, siblings, friends and acquaintances would not be saved.”

Instead, Menda converted to Christianity and began reading the Bible and translating books into Braille, a hobby that sustained him through the years of solitary confinement.

In 1983, after 80 judges had been involved in Menda’s half-a-lifetime of struggle, a court finally acknowledged the police had concealed his alibi that he was not at the scene of the crime. With that, Menda — by then 54 years old — became the first person to ever escape Japan’s death row (three others, all tortured into confessing, have since been released).

In return for stealing the best years of his life, the government gave Menda 7,000 yen a day for every day he was in prison: 90 million yen in total. He donated half of that to a group campaigning to abolish the death penalty. “I had to pay lawyers and pay back my debt. I only have a third left,” he says.

With his freedom restored, Menda has now become one of the world’s leading death-penalty abolitionists, and he traveled to Paris this year to speak at the World Congress against the death penalty.

Undimmed hatred

He says he knows the mentality of the condemned better than most. “I have met so many death-row inmates, and I know they didn’t have any reasoning behind their crimes. They told me they felt rage and don’t remember anything afterward. People kill others because they are not normal. When people kill, they are not themselves. They forget who they are.”

More than two decades of freedom have not dimmed Menda’s hatred for the police, the judiciary or what he calls “Japan’s feudal attitude toward justice and democracy.”

He points out that the system that tore his life apart is still unchanged: the police can still hold a criminal suspect for 23 days without any judicial oversight; confessions still carry enormous weight, with over 99 percent of criminal charges ending in victory for the prosecution — and the condemned are still kept in solitary confinement with virtually no chance of a reprieve.

“The powerful have the upper hand here,” he says.

“I went to see the police when I was released, and I asked them how they felt about what they did to me. They told me they were just doing their job.”

He remains pessimistic that the system will change.

“When I was released, people took up the cause (of abolition) but gradually lost interest. Japanese democracy is only 60 years old. The concept of human rights is not ingrained in our history,” he says.

“I heard that a judge once said it was natural to sacrifice one or two citizens for the sake of Japan’s judicial stability. But I believe there is nothing crueler than a government taking away a life. It is all-too human to make a mistake — or just happen to cause problems. In this sense, I am for abolishing the death penalty.”

See related stories:
Japan’s way of judicial killing
‘Killing people won’t cut crime; there’s no data to prove this’

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