In July, Justice Minister Keiko Chiba signed execution orders for two death row inmates and then attended their hangings. Many people were puzzled because Chiba, an attorney, had been opposed to the death penalty. She said that she was under no pressure to sign the orders and that there weren’t any political motives behind her decision. She added, however, that she wanted to “push a debate on capital punishment” and ordered the formation of a study group to discuss the issue.

Approving the demise of two men is a novel way to get people to talk about an issue, but in accordance with Chiba’s wishes the media has at least started looking more closely at Japan’s capital punishment system, though it seems to be a debate the justice ministry wants to control.

On Aug. 27, the ministry invited select members of the press to inspect the execution chamber of the Tokyo Detention House (TDH) in order to “promote public discussions on the death penalty” in line with Chiba’s directive. According to freelance reporter Michiyoshi Hatakeyama, writing in the magazine Shukan Kinyobi, 21 journalists, each representing a member of the ministry’s press club, were allowed to view the gallows for 16 minutes in the morning. Except for NHK and Kyodo News, they could not take photographs, and were transported to the execution chamber on a microbus with blacked-out windows.

Hatakeyama said that after Chiba’s initial announcement he heard there might be a press tour of the gallows and visited the ministry twice every day thereafter to find out when it would be. He was always told that it hadn’t been decided yet. Then he received an e-mail from the ministry at 10:56 a.m. on Aug. 27, six minutes after the inspection had ended, saying there would be a press conference at the ministry at 4 p.m. It was there that Hatakeyama and some 40 other freelance, magazine and foreign reporters learned about the inspection. They demanded to know why they had been shut out. Among other reasons, the ministry said the bus couldn’t carry more than 21 people. When asked if there would be another inspection, the reporters were told there wouldn’t because it would cause problems for the employees and the inmates of the TDH.

Obviously, the ministry wants to limit the discussion to the mainstream domestic media. A week later on its nightly newsmagazine “Closeup Gendai,” NHK covered the tour. The announcer stated that the purpose of the inspection was to “raise awareness” but that it actually just raised more questions. Though the justice ministry has, since 2007, been releasing the names of people it executes and Chiba says she wants to be more open, “there are still many things that we don’t understand,” said the announcer.

With the help of an anonymous ex-prosecutor, NHK described the execution chamber in detail and what happens when someone is put to death. They also interviewed a former warden who once participated in a hanging and a Catholic prison chaplain. Though the interviews shed light on procedure, they didn’t provide much in the way of explanation for why the ministry is so secretive. The official ministry explanation, according to an NHK reporter, is that they don’t want to “agitate death row inmates.”

Protecting the feelings of the condemned sounds like a strange policy when these inmates’ whole existence is geared toward being put to death. That’s why they are in detention centers and not prisons. Detention centers are for waiting — for indictment, for trials, or for the noose. The people whom the ministry really doesn’t want to agitate are the citizens, who overwhelmingly support the death penalty.

They also don’t want to agitate the families of murder victims. NHK interviewed a man who admitted feeling relief when the murderer of his daughter was executed in July, and another man who had mixed feelings about the execution of the man who killed his brother. These two interviews supposedly qualify as balance, but the argument is limited to victims’ views, as if they were the only ones that matter. NHK also talked to two professors, one who supports the death penalty because public opinion supports it and “the Japanese sense of justice was formed over many centuries”; and another who advocates “talking about” the problem of enzai (false convictions), but stopped short of actually opposing capital punishment.

NHK did not elicit an opinion from anyone who is actually against the death penalty and could explain in clear language why he or she thinks it should be abolished from either a moral, philosophical, or legal standpoint. Recently on TV Asahi’s popular news variety show, “So Datta no ka,” former NHK announcer Akira Ikegami explained Japan’s capital punishment system to a panel of celebrities, who listened intently and reacted to factoids with awe and surprise, but didn’t express any opinions on the matter one way or the other.

Writer Kaoru Takamura addressed this “lack of imagination” in an opinion piece she contributed to the magazine Aera. She believes the justice ministry has no intention of holding a debate about the death penalty. They allowed limited media coverage of the execution chamber to satisfy Chiba, and the mainstream press only presents the “framework” of the argument, avoiding anything that might challenge assumptions which keep the death penalty popular.

This is important to the justice ministry, since the new lay judge system will confront a number of capital cases this fall, and in order for them to proceed smoothly (i.e., easy, quick convictions and death sentences) they don’t want citizen jurists to agonize over their decision to put someone to death. Such agonizing may be exactly what’s needed, however. According to Takamura, in order to provoke a genuinely meaningful discussion about capital punishment in Japan, you need “stories with a strong impact.”

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