Japan opens up secretive world of capital punishment by giving rare media tour of gallows

By Mari Yamaguchi, AP
Friday, August 27, 2010

Japan gives rare tour of gallows to spur debate

TOKYO — Japan opened up the secretive world of its capital punishment system to the public Friday, offering journalists a rare tour of Tokyo’s main gallows in an effort to stoke debate about a practice widely supported here.

All executions in Japan are carried out by hanging, and no media coverage of executions is permitted. Inmates on death row do not know when they will be executed until the last minute, while family members and lawyers are only told afterward. Along with the United States, Japan is one of the few industrialized countries that maintains capital punishment.

Despite persistent criticism by rights groups such as Amnesty International and the main Japanese bar association, there is little public outcry against capital punishment in Japan, where recent government surveys showed more than 80 percent support ratings.

But the media tour at the Tokyo Detention Center — broadcast on major TV stations — appears to be driven by Justice Minister Keiko Chiba, who opposes the death penalty.

In July, Chiba approved — and witnessed — the hangings of two inmates convicted of murder, saying she was carrying out her duties as justice minister.

Afterward, Chiba said she still supports abolishing capital punishment, and as a way to spur public debate, ordered that journalists be given a tour of the facilities, which Japanese press said was the first since at least the end of World War II. She also promised to create a ministry panel to discuss the death penalty, including whether it should be stopped.

“I hope the public viewing of the execution chamber today would help national debate on the death penalty,” Chiba said after the press tour.

But justice officials said the viewing was a one-off.

“In principle, we believe the execution chamber is not suited for public viewing because of its nature,” said Satoshi Tomiyama, a correction official at the ministry.

Japanese TV news programs Friday showed footage from the tour, including the execution room, where a red square marked the trapdoor where the condemned stands.

Foreign press were barred from the visit despite repeated requests for access by The Associated Press and other media organizations. The Ministry of Justice gave no clear reason.

Even the exact location of the execution site is a secret. According to media accounts, the reporters were taken on a bus with curtains closed so that the location couldn’t be identified.

The tour was led to a room decorated with a Buddha statue before reaching the death chamber, separated by a curtain. The hanging rope was removed from the ceiling-mounted pulley and the trapdoor was closed.

TV footage showed a small room next to the chamber where three executioners simultaneously push a button so none knows who activated the trapdoor.

Japan has a 99 percent conviction rate — a number that hasn’t changed even after the country introduced a jury system for serious cases tried at district courts.

The high conviction rate has raised concerns about problems in the country’s criminal justice. Police interrogate suspects in closed rooms for hours without an attorney present or full recording, which critics say leads to coerced confessions and conviction of the innocent.

So far, none of the jury trials have involved cases that involve the death penalty, but some people, including those who served as jurists, have expressed concerns about serving on such cases.

Anti-execution lawyer Yoshihiro Yasuda has accused Chiba of trading two lives for the opportunity to stir public debate.

“Execution is murder. It’s wrong to use the execution to promote (a) review of the death penalty,” he said. “I’m afraid that a public viewing could instead justify the cause, depending on its presentation.”

A series of false convictions that surfaced in recent months have also raised concerns. Recently, a 63-year-old man sentence to life in prison for the murder of a 4-year-old girl was released after DNA tests showed he was innocent.

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