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