Perhaps no international organization is more concerned with our basic human rights than Amnesty International. Founded in Britain in 1961, the group now claims 2.2 million members in over 150 countries. Japan has two local branches — AI Japan and the foreigner-friendly Amnesty International Tokyo English Network, better known as AITEN.
Among the causes championed by the two closely connected organizations is Japan’s death penalty. “There are over 100 people on death row, many convicted on dubious evidence, and none of them knows which day will be their last. Executions are not carried out on dates announced in advance, but on the whim of the justice minister,” explains Chris Pitts, AITEN coordinator. “The condemned are not told until an hour or so before, and the family is usually not informed until after the event.”
Sakae Menda was one of the condemned, and spent 34 years wondering when he would be hanged. He was convicted of murder in 1949 after police extracted a “confession” from him. After requesting a retrial six times, he was finally granted one in 1983 — and was acquitted.
Menda equates the sentence to the ultimate act of cruelty. “Living each day knowing that you may be sent to your death at any given month, day or moment is torture,” he said in a statement to AI. “Being on death row dehumanizes and has a massive psychological effect on a person. It’s an awful penalty to inflict on anyone — and is even more devastating for someone who is innocent.”
Although organizations like Amnesty International and the Japan Death Penalty Information Center are fighting for the country to join other developed nations in eliminating the death penalty, the outlook is bleak. “AI is involved with a coalition of lawyers, doctors, and Diet members who want to abolish it, but there is no realistic prospect of this happening in Japan anytime soon,” says Pitts. The justice ministry claims that 80% of the Japanese public supports the death penalty.
But AITEN’s scope is hardly limited in domestic issues. The organization is currently embarking on a campaign to fight unfair education practices the world over. Within the Slovakian town of Pavlovce nad Uhom, for example, there are two schools: one for children deemed “normal,” and one for those with special needs. At the latter, 199 of the 200 kids are of Romani ethnicity —aka Gypsies. “In grade seven of the special school, I learned the same things that I learned in grade three of the mainstream school,” a 14-year-old Romani boy told AI. Because of such de facto segregation, numerous Romani children have been denied an education and face diminished chances of finding a decent job.
To raise awareness of these issues within the Tokyo community, AITEN this week hosted a benefit concert at What the Dickens in Ebisu. Musical performances varied from acoustic alt-rock from The Clockwork Flowers to R&B from Forrest Nelson to hip-hop from Splitworks — but the message is clear: all boys and girls have the right to an education.
“In some countries, girls are denied even a basic education because discrimination is not resisted by their government,” Pitts says. “At our gig, we ask people to sign a general petition to send to some of the governments in question, and to write specifically on the case of the region of Slovakia that discriminates against and denies a mainstream education to Romani children.”
The AITEN team is keeping busy with a number of programs to support AI Japan. “Our specific activities in Tokyo include organizing informal fund-raising rock concerts every few months, a monthly movie night at Heaven’s Door in Shimokitazawa, setting up a table at international school festivals, and supporting the activities of AI Japan,” says Pitts. “At all these events, we try to educate, raise funds and recruit new supporters and members. The need to defend human rights never goes away.”
See www.aig78.org or email email@example.com to learn more about AITEN and find out when the next meeting will be held.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today