Japan resumes executions after 3 years

January 15, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Hidden within the thick walls of Japanese prisons, the gallows have been swinging again, ending the longest hiatus in executions in 800 years.

After more than three years without any capital punishment, seven criminals are believed to have been hanged last year. The authorities won't talk about it.

Evidence comes from tiny facts laboriously collected by anti-death penalty activists, commonly referred to here as abolitionists, and from indefatigable news organizations.

A limited confirmation will only emerge when the Ministry of Justice releases a dry statistical report on 1993 criminal activity in forthcoming months. Still missing will be places, dates, even the names of those executed.

The secrecy is in sharp contrast to the United States, the only other major economic power to legally maintain the death penalty. But unlike in America, where crime and punishment have become the national obsession, violence of almost any sort is almost unknown in Japan.

Capital punishment, among the most vivid forms of government-perpetuated violence, has long been wrapped in mystery.

Its recent suspension occurred without fanfare, and its presumed resumption has come without notice, epitomizing how the Japanese government quietly attempts to enforce accountability and cope with severe violations to public order.

"In Japanese society there has always been a feeling that a dangerous criminal who takes a life must take responsibility by losing his own life," said Ryuchi Nagao, a Tokyo University law professor. "Deterrence theory is less important than revenge or retribution."

This tradition extends beyond the courts to an internalized system of capital punishment. Suicide, after a serious violation of acceptable behavior, is an ancient and practically noble tradition in Japan.

"Social pressure is more important than incarceration. There is no tradition of carrying the burden." says Makoto Iwai, of Amnesty International, the London-based watch group that condemns capital punishment as an abuse of human rights.

While nominally there are 17 crimes for which death is a penalty, most of the 58 people thought to be awaiting execution, and 32 others whose sentences are being appealed, stand convicted of brutal multiple murders.

Among the seven thought to have been executed during the past year: Shujiro Tachikawa beat his mother to death with a concrete block to collect on a life insurance policy, then strangled a witness: his wife.

Kojimo Tadao was discovered in the midst of a botched safe-cracking burglary by a 7-year-old boy and the child's parents. He strangled all three.

Sakaguchi Toru and Deguchi Hideo were convicted of trying to mask an embezzlement scheme at work by killing two executives.

And so on.

They were all sentenced in the mid-to-late 1970s and spent a minimum of 14 years in jail before finally being sent to the gallows (the only approved method of execution).

Legal process shorter

The legal process is far shorter in Japan than it is in the United States where delays in execution are the product of endless appeals through the state and federal courts.

Why the lengthy period of incarcerations nonetheless occurs, despite provisions in the Japanese penal law encouraging speedy administration of penalties, is one of many unanswered questions.

No information is disclosed on the scheduling of executions. The silence, says Kauznori Goto, of the Justice Ministry's criminal affair's bureau, is "to protect other death-sentence prisoners, to maintain their emotional stability."

Similarly, the procedures for executions have never been


Several recently published accounts by former guards and exonerated prisoners describe a system where notification comes shortly before death.

In the morning, steps will be heard in the hallways. When a key turns in the lock of a cell, the others know that their time has yet to come. The one to be executed is given a good meal, fresh clothes, and the opportunity to write a letter. Then, in a small room with only prison personnel present, a rope is put around a neck, a trap door opened, and it is over.

Information on who has been executed in often thin or non-existent. For instance, evidence that Mr. Toru was among the most recently executed comes from a telephone message said to have been left for a family member.

Revealed by Amnesty

In 1989 another execution went undetected for four months. It was revealed when a letter from Amnesty International was returned to sender.

The Justice Ministry justifies this silence by saying it spares the relatives of the executed from associated shame.

Often this information can be determined by whether the name of a known death-row inmate has been removed from the koseki, the elaborate system that documents every Japanese citizen.

But even at this bureaucratic intersection between life and death, the information may never come to light because access to the registry is limited.

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