• Kyodo, AFP-Jiji

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Three death row inmates were hanged Tuesday, the Justice Ministry said, in Japan's first executions since December 2019 and first under the administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

The three were identified as Yasutaka Fujishiro, 65, who killed seven of his relatives in Hyogo Prefecture in 2004, and Tomoaki Takanezawa, 54, and Mitsunori Onogawa, 44, who were convicted of killing two employees at two separate pachinko parlors in Gunma Prefecture in 2003.

Following Tuesday's executions, the number of inmates sitting on death row in Japan stands at 107.

The Kobe District Court sentenced Fujishiro to death in May 2009 and the decision was finalized in June 2015 after the Supreme Court rejected an appeal.

Takanezawa and Onogawa, who also robbed one of their victims and stole money from one of the pachinko parlors, were sentenced to death by the Saitama District Court. The death penalty for Takanezawa was finalized in July 2005 after he withdrew his appeal, while Onogawa's sentence was finalized in June 2009 at the Supreme Court.

After the executions, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara told reporters it is "not appropriate to abolish (the country's death penalty system) considering the current situation in which heinous crimes continue to occur."

"Many Japanese think the death penalty is unavoidable in the case of extremely malicious crimes," Kihara said.

More than two-thirds of countries in the world have abolished the death penalty in law or practice, according to Amnesty International.

Justice Minister Yoshihisa Furukawa, who ordered the executions, said at a separate news conference that he gave the order "after giving careful considerations again and again."

When assuming his post in October, Furukawa said the death penalty cannot be avoided for someone who has committed a crime resulting in serous consequences.

The executions were the first since Dec. 26, 2019, when a Chinese man on death row for the 2003 slaying of a family of four in Fukuoka Prefecture was put to death.

Japan executed three inmates in 2019 and 15 in 2018 — including 13 from the Aum Shinrikyo cult that carried out the fatal 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

Executions are usually implemented long after sentencing, and always by hanging.

Public support for capital punishment remains high despite international criticism, including from rights groups.

For decades, authorities have told death row inmates they will be executed just hours before the procedure is carried out — a process that two inmates have argued is illegal and causes psychological distress. The pair are suing the government over the system, and are also seeking compensation of ¥22 million for the distress caused by living with uncertainty about their execution date.

Documents and news archives show that Japan used to give death row inmates more notice, but stopped around 1975.

In December 2020, Japan's top court overturned a ruling blocking the retrial of a man described as the world's longest-serving death row inmate, raising new hope for the now 85-year-old. Iwao Hakamada has lived under a death sentence for more than half a century after being convicted of robbing and murdering his boss, the man's wife and their two teenage children.

But he and his supporters say he confessed to the crime only after an allegedly brutal police interrogation that included beatings, and that evidence in the case was planted.

Worldwide, at least 483 people were executed last year in 18 countries, according to Amnesty International.

That represents a drop of around a quarter from the year before, and fits a downward trend since 2015.

The figure does not, however, include the "thousands" of executions believed to have been carried out in China, which keeps such data secret, along with North Korea and Vietnam.

Japan and the United States are the only members of the G7 that still have the death penalty.

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