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Saturday, Aug. 28, 2010

News photo
Rare view: Above, the execution chamber at the Tokyo Detention House is photographed Friday from the attendant chamber. The upper room is where the noose is placed around the inmate's neck. When the trapdoor opens, the condemned falls into the lower chamber. Below: Inmates can speak with a chaplain in this chamber just before they are hanged. KYODO PHOTOS

Q&A

Shedding light on death penalty

Japan part of a shrinking roster of nations with capital punishment


Staff writer

Justice Minister Keiko Chiba, who will probably be replaced next month because she lost her Diet seat in the July 11 Upper House election, allowed journalists for the first time Friday to enter the Tokyo Detention House's execution chamber.

News photo

Chiba, who has long been opposed to the death penalty, has taken various measures to promote public discussion on capital punishment by making it transparent, while like many other justice ministers she fulfilled her duty of signing off on two hangings on July 27.

Debate on capital punishment is expected to intensify as the government releases more information. One aspect that has long caused controversy is the fact that inmates are kept in the dark about their fateful day until it arrives.

Questions and answers about the death penalty follow:

How frequent are executions in Japan?

Two inmates were executed this year, seven last year, 15 in 2008, nine in 2007 and four in 2006. Since World War II, the figure peaked at 39 in 1960 and was zero in 1964, 1990, 1991 and 1992. Thus, it is hard to say whether executions are increasing or decreasing. It can largely depend on who holds the post of justice minister, which carries with it the power to authorize executions.

What about other countries?

News photo
Open doors reveal a small Buddhist altar in the antechamber. The curtain that separates the front chamber and execution chamber is usually closed.

All European countries except Russia, Belarus, Serbia and Latvia have abolished capital punishment. In the United States, 35 states have the death penalty. China yearly tops the list for most executions.

According to Amnesty International, 95 countries, including Canada and Australia, have abolished the death penalty, while nine other countries have it on the books only for extraordinary cases of espionage or treason, Amnesty International Japan official Osamu Amano said. Countries falling under this category include Kazakhstan and Brazil.

Thirty-five countries, including South Korea, Russia and some African nations, have the death penalty and inmates on death row but have not had any executions for more than 10 years. Executions are currently conducted in 58 countries, including Japan, the U.S., China and India.

In 2008, at least 2,390 inmates were executed in 25 countries, Amano said. China executed 1,718, followed by Iran with 346, Saudi Arabia with 102 and the U.S. with 37. Japan was No. 10 with 15.

Why does Japan choose hanging as its method?

Early in the Meiji Era, executions were carried out by hanging or decapitation by sword, but the sword method was deleted from the previous Penal Code in the mid-Meiji Era because it was considered cruel, according to Toshiharu Kato, an official in the Justice Ministry's Criminal Affairs Bureau. The ministry has no idea why hanging was originally chosen, as the method of execution, he said, adding the ministry has never formally considered changing to a different method.

What methods are used by other countries?

In the U.S., lethal injection accounts for 85 percent of executions, according to Amnesty International. Amano said there are no statistics for other countries, but China tends to use guns or lethal injections. In Iran, hanging and stoning are common, while in Saudi Arabia a sword is used for decapitations, he said.

Where do Japan's executions take place?

The nation's seven detention centers, in Sapporo, Sendai, Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima and Fukuoka, each has a death chamber.

What is the process?

Detention house officials escort the inmates to the chaplain chamber, front chamber and execution chamber. They are given a chance to discuss their will and talk with a chaplain in the first two chambers and are hanged in the execution chamber.

What happens to the bodies?

Center officials wait for five minutes after death is confirmed. They then remove the rope and place the body in a coffin.

If the family asks, they will be given the body or its cremated remains, said Satoshi Tomiyama of the Justice Ministry's Correction Bureau, adding it isn't unusual for families not to want the remains.

The detention center chiefs are obliged to inform the families of the inmates and of their victims as soon as executions are carried out, he said.

Why were execution chambers never shown to the media until Friday?

"Execution chambers are very serious places where the heaviest punishment is carried out. Considering the feelings of detention center officials and families of death row inmates and victims, they are not fit for public viewing," Tomiyama said.

Then why did the Justice Ministry show the chamber to the media Friday?

"Because Justice Minister Keiko Chiba instructed us to do so in order to promote public discussions on the death penalty," Tomiyama said.

What do ordinary people think of the death penalty?

According to a survey by the Cabinet Office in December 2009, 85.6 percent of respondents said there may be no better choice than capital punishment in some cases, 8.6 percent said they didn't know and 5.7 percent said the death penalty must be abolished.

The Cabinet Office received answers from 1,944 people.

Are there days executions can't be carried out?

Yes. There can be no hangings on weekends, national holidays, or Jan. 2 and 3 and Dec. 29, 30 and 31, according to the law on treatment of detainees at detention centers and other correctional facilities.

What type of routine do death-row inmates follow?

According to the Tokyo Detention House, they are awakened at 7 a.m. and are provided three meals a day. Lights out is at 9 p.m.

The condemned get another 30 minutes of sleep in the morning on weekends and national holidays.

The inmates are not required to work and they live in solitary cells. They are given 30 minutes a day for exercise, and they can bathe more than twice a week.

Are death-row inmates allowed any diversions?

In the Tokyo Detention House, they can work under contract with companies and organizations outside the center. Officials lend them shogi and go boards. The center also arranges for them to watch videos several times a month.


Freelance journalists snubbed

Freelance journalists and others working for Internet news sites voiced their anger to Justice Minister Keiko Chiba for inviting only a limited number of reporters to view the execution chamber at the Tokyo Detention House on Friday.

The media tour included about 20 journalists who belong to the Justice Ministry's "kisha" press club. Member companies are generally major wire services, newspapers — including The Japan Times — and radio and TV stations. They are all Japanese companies.

"How did you select who to invite?" a freelancer who identified himself as Hatakeyama demanded at a news conference. A freelancer who works for the Nico Nico Douga Internet broadcaster asked a similar question.

"We had to limit the number of people allowed (in the execution chamber) for security reasons and not to disturb detention house officials' work. We didn't mean to exclude freelancers," Chiba said.

A cameraman working for online broadcaster Videonews.com pointed out that no foreign media were invited.

In reply, Chiba said, "We didn't intend to exclude foreign media."



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