For death-row inmates in Japan, contact with the outside world through visits and the exchange of letters makes life worth living, if only for another day, as they reflect on their crimes or pursue the possibility of retrials.
As one might expect, a questionnaire survey found the biggest pleasure for inmates awaiting execution is contact with family and friends. It also revealed that nearly 80 percent of the respondents were either appealing for retrials or planning to do so.
The nationwide survey conducted by an anti-death penalty group called Forum 90 and Mizuho Fukushima, a House of Councilors member of the Social Democratic Party, found that issues such as the treatment of certain medical conditions, and the obvious fear of facing a literal gallows, weighed heavily on their minds.
Others expressed remorse for their crimes and apologies to the victims’ families.
The questionnaires were sent out in May to 129 death-row inmates, of whom 73 responded. Fukushima is a senior member of a group of multiparty lawmakers seeking the abolition of the death penalty.
Among the respondents, 50 said they are seeking retrials, while eight more plan to do so.
Asked about their greatest pleasures, 20 cited meeting with visitors, 19 said writing and receiving letters, and 17 said watching DVDs and videos, which they are permitted to do on a periodic basis.
Although most have visitors or engage in correspondence, 13 admitted to having no visitors, while five were not involved in writing letters, and indicated their loneliness.
Sixty complained of health problems, with one inmate saying it is difficult to receive proper treatment for dentures, while another inmate complained of a lack of physical exercise. Many said they regularly receive medical treatment or medication for high blood pressure, backaches and prostate diseases.
Regarding the food they most want to eat, with multiple answers allowed, 10 said noodles, nine answered sweets, such as cakes, and eight indicated sushi.
The oldest respondent was 83 years old, while the youngest was 30.
It was the third survey of death-row inmates by Forum 90 and Fukushima, following those conducted in 2008 and 2011. The survey also provides a section for comments.
A 68-year-old man involved in a mass murder case by a radical sect in the early 1970s noted, “Our life continues even if the death penalty on us has been finalized.
“We are making efforts to improve our own personal qualities, while considering why we committed crimes and how we could prevent others from making the same mistakes.”
The man criticized the system of capital punishment for condemning death-row inmates for the crimes they committed in the past without acknowledging the work they have done to improve themselves since that time.
“The Justice Ministry announces immediately after executions the details of crimes the hanged inmates committed so it can condemn them for who they were at the time of their crimes,” he said.
A 57-year-old man said, “I was scared for the past 10 years as I imagined myself on the gallows and hanged. But the fear stirred a feeling that I’m living, with blood running through my veins.”
Given the circumstances, he added, he gradually began to accept his fate.
“I dreamed of the abolition of the death penalty, but at the same time I thought it would not be terminated while I’m alive,” he said. “I leave the dream as it is … I have no regrets about this world.”
A 45-year-old inmate convicted of involvement in the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system as a member of the Aum Shinrikyo cult contributed a poem titled “Sinner.”
Calling himself “an absolutely ungrateful child” in the poem, he lamented his powerlessness to support his aging parents. He said he felt crushed by the weight of the crimes he committed.
“I cannot go back into the past … I am a sinner who stands alone on a cliff,” he wrote.
Taku Fukada, a member of Forum 90, said the group hopes to continue conducting the survey “as a way to enable death-row inmates to convey what they are thinking to the outside world.”
The government hanged a death-row inmate in June, bringing the total number of executions under the second administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which began in December 2012, to 12.
The U.N. Human Rights Committee urged Japan last year to “give due consideration to the abolition of the death penalty.”
In defense of the status quo, the government has mainly cited the outcome of a survey that indicated more than 80 percent of people in Japan support the death penalty.
But a recent study by researchers found that the death penalty is not as deeply entrenched in Japan as previously claimed, and that some people change their minds, particularly after being exposed to more information on the subject.
According to human rights group Amnesty International, 140 countries, or about 70 percent of all nations in the world, had abolished the death penalty by law or in practice as of the end of 2014. In 2014, only 22 countries, including Japan, continued to execute inmates.