Two inmates were hanged Wednesday in the first executions since the Democratic Party of Japan took power 10 months ago.

Justice Minister Keiko Chiba attended the executions of Kazuo Shinozawa and Hidenori Ogata at the Tokyo Detention House. It was the first time a justice minister has attended a hanging.

“The execution was being carried out by my order, thus I believed that it was my responsibility to see it with my own eyes. I have confirmed that the execution was performed properly,” said Chiba, an opponent of the death penalty.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku backed Chiba, telling reporters, “The executions took place in accordance with the law and following an appropriate judgment by the justice minister.”

Asked about the timing of the hangings, the top government spokesman denied any political motivation or connection to any specific issue.

But the opposition camp was quick to hit the minister’s timing, noting she had lost her Upper House seat in the election earlier this month.

Chiba “never signed executions while she was a lawmaker. But now as a private citizen, she quickly gave the go-ahead. I don’t understand it,” Your Party Secretary General Kenji Eda said.

By law, an execution must be carried out within five days after the justice minister signed the order, indicating the order may have been signed last weekend. Chiba had her Diet member status until Sunday.

Chiba repeatedly told the press she did not choose the timing of the executions.

“I have taken enough time to look into the cases carefully (to ensure) there weren’t any problems, and as a consequence they were carried out now,” she said, adding the review process started before the election.

Shinozawa, 59, was sentenced to death for torching a jewelry shop in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, in June 2000 during a ¥140 million robbery, killing six female employees.

Ogata, 33, was sentenced to death for murdering a man and woman and for attempting to murder two other women in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, in 2003.

Chiba, a lawyer, refused to go into detail about the hangings, except to say she “thought long and hard about the death penalty and felt strongly the need for thorough deliberations about capital punishment among the public.”

After the executions, Chiba said she ordered the formation of a study group on capital punishment. When she took the justice portfolio last September, she said she planned to push the debate on capital punishment, but little has taken place.

She said the study group will look at the issue from all perspectives, including whether to maintain or abolish the death penalty.

The group will be made up of officials of the Justice Ministry, but Chiba said she will keep its deliberations open and invite outside experts to express their opinions.

“Interest in the criminal justice system is growing because of the lay judge system, and members of the general public now have the responsibility of deciding death sentences. Under these circumstances, I will publicize the results of the study group and make this an opportunity for the public to discuss capital punishment,” Chiba said.

Chiba is to remain justice minister until September, when the DPJ will hold a presidential election.

“I don’t believe that the study group will reach a quick conclusion, but something will certainly come out of it. I’m going to hear various opinions and push the discussion forward,” she said.

Asked why she had gone forward with the hangings, Chiba responded, “It’s part of the job of justice minister, and as minister, I’ve been aware of that.”

To foster debate on capital punishment, Chiba said she ordered the ministry to allow the media to report details about the death chamber at the Tokyo Detention House.

Till now, the Justice Ministry has barred the public from the gallows site, claiming it is too solemn a place for public viewing.

As of Wednesday, there were 107 death row inmates nationwide.

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