Tokyo Notes

Death Row in Japan

Japan’s system of capital punishment is outdated and cruel, a leading critic says.

Justice Minister Keiko Chiba approved the execution of two death row inmates last month due to pressure from ministry officials and as a result of losing her upper house seat, according to Nobuto Hosaka, former head of a parliamentary group seeking the abolition of the death penalty.

Speaking in Tokyo at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Hosaka also pointed out that some aspects of executions in Japan dated back to the 19th century and were ‘intolerable.’ In particular, he referred to the practice of not telling death row inmates of their impending demise until the day of execution or allowing them a final chance to see friends or family before being put to death.

The executions ordered by Chiba at the end of July grabbed headlines because she has long been a supporter of abolishing capital punishment. When she was made justice minister last year, some media reports even suggested that it effectively meant a moratorium on executions in Japan. But Hosaka said he wasn’t surprised by her decision since her reluctance to meet members of the parliamentary group she was previously a member of suggested she was considering such a decision.

‘When we look at the Justice Ministry we see that very senior officials have absolutely no qualms in regard to capital punishment. You cannot become a senior official in the Justice Ministry unless you have very clear thoughts about capital punishment. These are the kind of officials that are surrounding Ms. Chiba. They obviously told Ms. Chiba that while they understood she had strong feelings about capital punishment it was her responsibility as justice minister to implement this capital punishment. Only after she fulfilled her job responsibilities could she ask people to engage in vigorous debate about this issue,’ Hosaka said.

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‘I believe in her heart of hearts she did not want to sign that execution order. But there was a lot of pressure on her. She did lose [her seat] in the upper house election and when that happens you usually resign from the Cabinet as well…this probably added pressure on her to fulfil her responsibilities and these kind of pressures led her to sign the execution order.’

Unlike some of her predecessors, though, such as Kunio Hatoyama, who suggested justice ministers shouldn’t even have to sign execution orders, Chiba took the extra step of witnessing the executions. At a later press conference she called for the establishing of a panel to look into the death penalty issue and said that execution facilities should be opened up to the press to help stimulate debate on capital punishment.

But Hosaka is concerned that the facilities will be displayed in a relatively favourable light, with some parts not visited.

‘One of the things I’m concerned about in regard to the Justice Ministry opening these facilities for viewing by the press, is that depending on how they are presented, you can get a very different impression. As I mentioned, in this first room, there was no noose, no rope. Depending on how the press are brought into this room it might just look like the lounge of a public building.

He said the ministry was keen to avoid showing a basement room below.

‘I remember even now, standing in the basement space looking up at the trap door and realizing what it means when this facility is actually used. I remember shuddering at that time.  

‘Since this is an attempt by the Justice Ministry to engage in information disclosure, I think that disclosure should be 100 percent. All the facilities, the upper floor and the basement floor should be made available for viewing and not only to those in the Japanese press clubs, but also to freelance journalists and to the foreign press.’

But Hosaka acknowledged that public opinion in Japan favours capital punishment, although he claimed Cabinet surveys showing 80 percent backing for the death penalty overstated that support since they framed the debate in extreme choices. Hosaka argued that the public was kept in the dark about the details of death row and that many people on the streets of Tokyo didn’t even realize that capital punishment involved hanging. Full disclosure was therefore the key to changing public perceptions.

Even supporters of the death penalty, though, should consider the psychological pressure put on death row inmates, he said, referring to practices dating back to 1873 or 1874.

‘[The secrecy over executions] is to ensure the psychological state of the convicted person be kept as stable as possible. This is the official explanation. However, when we consider the circumstances under which the convicts find themselves, there’s absolutely no warning about when the execution is going to take place. They wait five years, 10 years, 15 years, and every day they are thinking, ‘Is it going to be today, this morning?’

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‘They have no advance warning and then one day out of the blue they are brought inside this room and given a declaration that they are going to be executed and then they are executed. All this probably takes place in less than an hour. They do not have any time to meet their friends or families for the last time. Given this situation, one wonders how the government can explain this as keeping the emotions of the inmate stable. Even for people who say we need the death penalty, I wonder if this is something that goes beyond acceptable levels of cruelty.’