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A look at life on death row in Japan

29 Comments

From 1967 to 1994, novelist and nonfiction author Toshio Sakamoto worked as a guard, supervisor and warden in seven of Japan's penal institutions. Since retiring, he has served as an advisor to TV dramas and film makers, and recently published a book titled "Order to Proceed with an Execution" (Nihon Bungeisha).

In Shukan Taishu (June 9), Sakamoto talks about what an average day is like for a condemned prisoner on Japan's death row. The article was inspired in part by the release last March 27 of 78-year-old convicted killer Iwao Hakamada, who had been incarcerated for 48 years -- the last 34 of which had been spent after his having exhausted all appeals. Hakamada was released after the Shizuoka District Court ordered a retrial on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct -- a rare but not unprecedented event in Japan.

"While serving as a Ministry of Justice official from 1979 to 1984, I was engaged in a study of conditions for dealing with death row convicts, and met with Mr Hakamada on numerous occasions," says Sakamoto. "Likewise from autumn of 1988, when I served as warden.

"My first impression upon meeting him was that he was a 'good kid.' He seemed determined to prove his innocence and I had doubts that he was the type of person who could have slain a family of four."

Japan currently has 130 prisoners awaiting the Minister of Justice's signoff for their execution. They are incarcerated at seven prisons: Sapporo, Sendai, Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima and Fukuoka, with about half the total in Tokyo's Kosuge Prison.

Shukan Taishu provides an illustration of a typical prisoner's solitary cell, which measures slightly less than 4 tatami mats (about 6 square meters), and includes a sink, commode, bedding and a small desk. Prisoners are entitled to a limited number of personal possessions, including items of food they can purchase on their own.

"It might seem like a paradox, but we have to ensure the physical and mental health of death row prisoners, up to the time they are executed," says Sakamoto. "To prevent attempts at suicide, self injury or escape, they are subjected to round-the-clock monitoring by a camera on the ceiling of each cell."

From the time they arise at 7 a.m. until lights go out at 9 p.m., prisoners are obliged to adhere to a rigid schedule that includes three daily meals and morning and evening cell inspections.

Thirty minutes of exercise, such as skipping rope or running in place, is permitted several times a week. The prisoners bathe twice a week (increased to three times during the summer months), with the total allotted time, including shaving, limited to 15 minutes.

"While in their cells they are required to remain seated, and free movement is not allowed," says Sakamoto. "Conversation with prisoners in adjacent cells is strictly prohibited.

"While they can't perform labor in the prison workshop, they can, upon request, seek permission to perform contracted light jobs while seated in their cells, like pasting together department store shopping bags, which might earn them a few thousand yen a month."

Sakamoto says performing work is beneficial in taking their minds off their impending executions, and has a "stabilizing" effect.

"In Kosuge there's nothing for them to see out their window except the corridor. They're not permitted to speak to anyone, and about the only day-to-day variations they encounter are differences in the contents of their meals," he notes.

The length of incarceration before an execution is carried out can be as brief as one to two years, but the average runs from 7 to 8 years. In cases like Hakamada's, where questions were raised over his guilty verdict, some prisoners may spend 30 years or longer on death row.

Sakamoto notes that many new prison guards undergo "culture shock" at the beginning of their careers, and sometimes endure psychological torment at the inflexible rules they are required to enforce. He is also struck by the fact that in Japan, as other countries with the death penalty, such sentences are far more likely to fall upon those who lack power, influence and the economic means to mount a solid legal defense. "The difference is evident to anyone," he remarks.

© Japan Today

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29 Comments
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Do they know prisoners are HUMANS?

-5 ( +4 / -9 )

Once the appeals process has been exhausted, a condemned prisoner in Japan is, for all intents and purposes, regarded as dead. I don't see anything humane about making them sit in a cell all day, folding paper shopping bags, year after year. Hanging them would probably be kinder.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

The way the inmates are kept on death row is in itself a form of cruel and unnecessary punishment and the articles does not mention all the bad stuff that they must experience. The fact that the inmate only about their execution on the morning but often is Friday when the Diet isn't sitting. They are kept in different prisons and covered by different laws but could be kept in normal prisons?

It wasn't always like that. Inmates were allowed to meet and mix and have some social contract.

The Japanese Supreme Court's decision to deny a retrial to an 87-year old death row prisoner who was convicted of murder based on a forced confession is a "travesty of justice", Amnesty International said today after his latest appeal was rejected. He was sentenced to death on a forced confession, which happed too often?

Many prison wardens who serve on death rows end up opposed to the death penalty.

9 ( +11 / -2 )

My observations from my reading is that most Japanese, both pro and anti-capitalist seem to believe that their is no debate over hanging and this reflects a culturally determined view that, if one is to die anyway, it doesn't matter how. Or perhaps neither side has a political interest in such a debate and supporters are probably loath to express any aspect of the death penalty to public scrutiny and opponents do not wish to legitimize the punishment by arguing over how they should be carried out. In the end the moral fervor of such activists, the anti-death penalty movement in Japan appears to be a small minority and very divided.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Did I read it right, they can only move 30min a day, unless folding paper? It's no wonder after 48 years of this an innocent man emerges a mental physical wreck. No a medieval society....really?

5 ( +7 / -2 )

Do they know prisoners are HUMANS?

Whats your point? Did you know Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Charles Manson, Bin Laden, Timothy McVeight are human beings?

-7 ( +7 / -14 )

Death penalty, disgusting.

0 ( +8 / -8 )

Killing someone is simply the ultimate form of torture. There is no way to square this circle.

(The prohibition on torture is the basis for outlawing of the death penalty in European countries who are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights.)

-3 ( +4 / -7 )

Let's now have an article on the lives of the people killed by death-row inmates.

Oh, that's right, there's nothing to write about because they have no lives anymore.

1 ( +8 / -7 )

And if they are innocent? Torture mind numbing boredom with a surprise one morning. It's 2014 not 1614.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

@sourpuss

I take your point, but your comment seems to also assume that those who have been killed would demand death for their killers, but this is not necessarily the case. There are in fact many families that are against the excecution of those who killed their family members.

If I were to sign a document stating that I dont want my killer excecuted if I am ever murdered, the government would of course ignore this.

It highlights the fact that excecutions have nothing to do with victims or families and they never have. Excecutions have always been about sending a message of fear to the polulation either as a deterrent or to display the ultimate authority of the state. And Its been proven that the death penalty is not a deterrent.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

The prisoners bathe twice a week (increased to three times during the summer months),

This is something I've never understood: why the Japanese police/prison system prevents people from bathing properly and requires them to be filthy. Logically, you would think that excessive cleanliness would be required, and would be an important psychological step toward rehabilitation and atonement.

It's not just prisoners; supposedly even arrestees who are being questioned during the infamous 23-day holding period are only allowed to bathe once every five days. Imagine all the sweat that your body will generate during those questioning sessions, and you won't be able to wash it off for °up to five days*!

Being able to bathe daily should be a fundamental human right even for death row prisoners.

7 ( +9 / -2 )

What the article does not mention is what happens when a death row inmate does not obey the strict rules. They will be placed in a leather restraining belt like the one in the linked image, At meal times forcing the inmate to eat doggy fashion. If the disorder involved shouting the inmate will also be gagged.

The inmates are also forced to wear pants with a slit for defecation.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

Would make you wonder who is the more warped in the head. The perpetrator, or the punisher. Right wing, redneck third world system.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Sakamoto notes that many new prison guards undergo “culture shock” at the beginning of their careers, and sometimes endure psychological torment at the inflexible rules they are required to enforce.

That isn't "culture shock". That is simply a human reaction to inhuman conditions.

M3M3M3May. 31, 2014 - 11:36AM JST Killing someone is simply the ultimate form of torture.

The conditions they endure BEFORE the execution are torture. The actual execution is a blessed release for most prisoners.

Don't confuse the two. If you're going to have the death penalty then make it quick and be 100% sure you've got the right person. If not then no death penalty.

... and this is the real problem. Japan's "justice" system is so riddled with corruption and incompetence that there can be no confidence they have the right person. Forced confessions, fabricated evidence by police and prosecutors, convictions based on circumstantial evidence, etc, etc, etc...

3 ( +6 / -3 )

A jail sentence in Japan is a much more appropriate punishment than the death penalty. Assuming they got the right criminal, prison in Japan is worse than the death penalty. Try to imagine life in a Japanese prison for even one week.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Bad habit. But this is Japan.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

“It might seem like a paradox, but we have to ensure the physical and mental health of death row prisoners, up to the time they are executed,” says Sakamoto. “To prevent attempts at suicide, self injury or escape, they are subjected to round-the-clock monitoring by a camera on the ceiling of each cell.”

What? "Ensure the physical and mental health?" Then how about abolishing the death penalty altogether? Makes absolutely NO sense.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

If I thought there was even a remote chance of my being sent to death row, I would kill myself.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Talk about "cruelty to animals"... and these are HUMAN animals - revolting, disgusting treatment.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

What? "Ensure the physical and mental health?" Then how about abolishing the death penalty altogether? Makes absolutely NO sense.

Yes, and what is even more unbelievable is the answer that the Japanese government has given to the United Nations Committee on torture about why they do not give prisoners or families any advance warning of their excecution. Japan says it may harm their peace of mind. This in extract from Japan's response.

26. Please provide updated information on measures taken to improve the conditions of detention of persons on death row, in order to bring them into line with international minimum standards. In particular, please provide information on steps taken to ensure that: (a) The death row inmates and their families are duly notified of the time of their Execution.

(Answers)

Regarding the notification on the execution of the death penalty, inmates sentenced to death are to be notified of their execution on the day it is to be performed. This is because, if inmates sentenced to death are notified of their execution before the day of the execution, their peace of mind may be negatively affected and the notification could rather inflict excessive pain on them, etc. In addition, if families, etc. of inmates sentenced to death are notified in advance of the execution, it would cause unnecessary psychological suffering to those who have received the notification. If the family, etc. of an inmate sentenced to death who has received such a notification visits the inmate and the inmate comes to know the schedule of his/her execution, similar harmful effects may occur. Therefore, we consider that current method of addressing the situation is unavoidable. After the execution of an inmate, the person who has been designated by the inmate sentenced to death in advance (it is possible to designate a family member or an attorney, etc.) is to be promptly notified pursuant to laws and regulations.

http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/human/conv_torture/index.html

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

@M3M3M3

Therefore, we consider that current method of addressing the situation is unavoidable.

I think they made a "mistake" in this sentence - they wrote "unavoidable" instead of "unbelievable"...

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Laws are there to be followed and the punishment should be a deterrent, not a welcoming party. Severe punishment is there to deter people from doing it. If prison wasn't a hell, then why would it be bad to end up there?

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

@Bernard Maisel

Laws are there to be followed and the punishment should be a deterrent, not a welcoming party. Severe punishment is there to deter people from doing it.

I couldn't agree more. Japan has signed up to a number of treaties under international law which specify minimum living standards for prisoners. Japan has been held to be in persistent default of its obligations by the treaty organisations. What do you propose the punishment should be to send a strong deterrent to other countries not to do the same? I agree with you that it should be severe.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I think the phrase is "don't do the crime if you don't want to do time"

-4 ( +2 / -6 )

@Brian Wheway - tell that to Iwao Hakamada.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

a life of Death,living dead for years on end-make it one appeal & be done with it quickly easier all around for the victims family to get closure/justice!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

If i get wrongly arrested for a crime that involves a death penalty (In this country, arrest = conviction), I would hope for a quick execution. But then again, after reading about the torture that life on death row entails, the police probably couldnt beat me hard enough to sign a confession.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Sakamoto says performing work is beneficial in taking their minds off their impending executions, and has a “stabilizing” effect.

You reckon?!

How can your mind be 'taken off' something when doing such a repetitive task? I make thousands of the same objects every day and can only stop my mind from going in pointless circles because I have a ready supply of audio-books to 'take my mind off' the work.

Maybe 'stabillising' should read 'stultifying'?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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