Earlier this month, two unidentified people on death row filed a suit in Osaka District Court, demanding the government discontinue the practice of not informing condemned prisoners of their execution time until the day it is to take place. The plaintiffs say this protocol, which is not stipulated in the operational rules for executions, violates the Constitution’s Article 31 prohibiting the imposition of criminal penalties without “proper procedure.”

As explained by NHK on its News Web site, the plaintiffs stated that not informing condemned prisoners of the date of their hangings in advance is “exceptionally cruel” in that the prisoner has no time to prepare for their death. Nor does it allow them time to consult lawyers or meet with loved ones. The state has defended the practice by saying it assures the prisoner’s “peace of mind,” since, presumably, informing them of the date beforehand will cause them to be consumed with dread for their remaining time. Prisoners are currently informed of their impending executions one or two hours before they are carried out.

NHK also explains that this practice has been in place since 1975. Previously, condemned prisoners were informed of their execution at least one day in advance, and, according to a former prison guard, condemned prisoners were once able to meet with family and write a will before dying. However, these allowances were stopped when one prisoner killed himself after being informed of his execution date. The state and the lawsuit say the reason for the suicide was that the prisoner was denied the opportunity to meet with a clergyman of his choice. The plaintiffs of the recent lawsuit said through their lawyer, Yutaka Ueda, that nowadays it is easy to prevent suicides because of surveillance cameras on death row.

NHK’s coverage went into more detail about the case than that of other major media outlets. While the majority of Japanese people surveyed support the death penalty, it’s not clear if they are familiar with how executions are carried out and what rights condemned prisoners have and don’t have. One of the purposes of the lawsuit seems to be to make these circumstances more widely known, but they won’t be if the media provides only perfunctory coverage.

Ueda told NHK that in the United States, the only other Group of Seven country that still puts people to death, condemned prisoners are informed well in advance of their execution date, and in many cases can make last requests. But as writer Caroline Lester put it in a recent article for Harper’s about former U.S. President Donald Trump’s rush to execute as many federal death row inmates as possible before he left office at the beginning of this year, capital punishment in the U.S. has been reduced to “the mere extinguishment of life.” States have derived power from “the violent public spectacle of capital punishment,” but nowadays such displays are considered uncivilized throughout much of the world.

The exterior of Tokyo Detention Center, where many of Japan's death row inmates spend their last days waiting to be informed of their execution on the same day it is carried out | REUTERS
The exterior of Tokyo Detention Center, where many of Japan’s death row inmates spend their last days waiting to be informed of their execution on the same day it is carried out | REUTERS

What’s left in the United States and Japan is a system of state-sanctioned killing that is carried out as quietly as possible, even to the point in Japan of keeping it from the condemned until the moment the executioner knocks on the door. The Justice Ministry says this practice, which is denounced by international human rights organizations, is for the prisoner’s benefit, but maybe it’s for the benefit of someone else?

Last July, for instance, Akihiro Okumoto, who is on death row for killing three family members in 2010, filed a lawsuit demanding that the government return his colored pencils, which he had previously used to make drawings he sold to make money for the families of his victims. In February, the Justice Ministry implemented a new directive banning the use of colored pencils by death row prisoners. Since it was a bureaucratic directive, the ministry says it doesn’t need to explain it, although Okumoto’s lawyer told the Sankei Shimbun that it may have something to do with a prisoner who tried to harm themself with a pencil sharpener blade.

Hitotsubashi University professor Takeshi Honjo told the Sankei Shimbun that, in principle, death row inmates should have access to almost anything they want, so if the prison staff say they are going to take away something belonging to the prisoner, then they have to have a very good reason.

Honjo’s implication is that the directive specifically targets Okumoto, a suggestion the Sankei reporter doesn’t interrogate. But if the directive seems arbitrary and cruel, the ministry knows it can get away with it because the plaintiff is a convicted murderer and therefore in the eyes of the public deserves no consideration whatsoever.

But the change in policy that best indicates the government’s attitude toward the condemned is one implemented in 2017 that affects retrials. Between 2000 and 2017, the government could not execute a death row prisoner in the midst of an appeal for a retrial, but now they can. It’s perhaps notable in this regard that then-Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa signed the death warrants for 13 Aum Shinrikyo members the following year, thus ignoring whatever appeals they had filed.

This change also affects one of Japan’s most famous death row inmates — Masumi Hayashi, who was convicted of killing several people with poisoned curry at a community festival 23 years ago based on circumstantial evidence and with no motive established by the prosecution. Hayashi has always said she is innocent.

According to a July 25 article in the Asahi Shimbun, Hayashi is awaiting a decision on her request for a retrial, and her lawyer says she lives every day in abject terror that she could be executed at any moment, because the retrial request no longer protects her. At one time thoroughly demonized by the tabloid press, Hayashi no longer interests the Japanese public. She is already dead to them, so the authorities may see no reason to delay that eventuality and, in the process, make their own lives easier.

See www.philipbrasor.com for addenda to Media Mix contributions.

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