• The Associated Press

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Lawmakers won approval Tuesday to inspect one of the country’s execution chambers in an extremely rare glimpse into a secretive system long criticized by international human rights groups.

The small group of lawmakers from the Lower House Justice Committee will inspect the gallows at a prison in Tokyo, Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama said at a news conference.

“We’re respecting lawmakers’ wishes to go,” Moriyama said. “I’m sure everyone has their own opinions about the place — this just demonstrates how important a place it is.”

The visit Wednesday will reportedly be the first glimpse anyone outside the criminal justice system has had of an execution chamber in 30 years. The Asahi Shimbun said outsiders last visited an execution chamber when the justice minister at the time showed a facility to lawmakers in 1973.

Capital punishment is conducted under deep secrecy in Japan, which has raised concerns over the protection of human rights.

The Justice Ministry refuses to disclose the names of executed criminals or announce executions in advance. Until 1998, the government refused to acknowledge officially that it carried any out.

Death sentences — which are carried out by hanging — have also often been implemented while the Diet is in recess, a step critics say is intended to shield the Justice Ministry from protests by lawmakers who oppose the death penalty.

But the corrections system has come under increased scrutiny after a guard at Nagoya Prison was arrested this year for allegedly torturing and killing an inmate two years ago. The case triggered criticism of prison conditions in general and prompted an investigation by government officials.

A total of 57 inmates were on death row in Japan as of the end of June.

Japan last executed people in September, when Moriyama approved the hanging of two prisoners. Before that, two people were executed Dec. 27, 2001, when the Diet was in recess.

Nobuto Hosaka, a leader in the Diet League for Abolition of the Death Penalty and a member of the opposition Social Democratic Party, was due to attend the tour Wednesday. The justice committee chairman and ruling Liberal Democratic Party member Yuji Yamamoto also planned to join.

“We greatly welcome that what’s been kept secret is now coming out into the open. It’s a very good thing,” said Misaki Yagishita of Amnesty International Japan.

Still, Yagishita said the government needs to make public the dates of planned executions, explain the reasons why these punishments are carried out and disclose the condition of death row inmates.