Death row inmates do not know until the morning of their last day that their number is up. It could be next week, next month, or years away. But for four, the gallows suddenly came Monday.
The condemned, and their next of kin, are purposely kept in the dark about their fate by the government until the time to hang arrives. As one Justice Ministry official put it, this is to lessen the mental torture of an inmate waiting to die, but critics have long denounced this logic as the exact opposite of the torturous truth.
The four hanged Monday were no exception, and now 94 others sit on death rows nationwide, never knowing when the knock on the door will come.
And the public, even though taxpayers foot the bill for executions, also only find out after the fact and glean few details from the government.
“The secrecy is rare among countries with legitimate capital punishment procedures,” said Makoto Teranaka of Amnesty International Japan, the local branch of the nongovernmental human rights watchdog group.
The Criminal Procedure Law stipulates that an execution must be carried out within five days after the justice minister issues the order.
The hangings Monday were carried out “because there was an order,” said a Justice Ministry official in the criminal department who asked not to be named. He denied there was any reason why Christmas Day was chosen.
Generally, the ministry will reveal on the day of an execution that a convict has been hanged but withholds the name of the deceased and the location where the sentence was carried out. The media and Amnesty International Japan, after an execution is announced, routinely gather details through lawyers and next of kin.
A Justice Ministry corrections department official said that in general, relatives of executed inmates are informed afterward.
He declined comment on whether officials informed the kin of the four who were hanged Monday.
The reason death row inmates are not given advance warning that their time to hang is approaching is to prevent them from suffering a psychological impact, the criminal department official said.
“If they know, they will think things like ‘it’s my turn next’ and suffer, and so will their families,” he said.
There are no laws requiring advance disclosure of such information to inmates, he noted.
But critics are demanding disclosure of information related to capital punishment so the public can discuss the issue of whether Japan should continue the practice.
“It is up to the public to decide whether to maintain capital punishment or introduce life imprisonment and abolish the death penalty,” said lawyer Toru Motobayashi, former chairman of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. “But more information needs to be disclosed for the public to have a serious discussion on the issue.”