TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Justice Minister Keiko Chiba’s decision to allow the media a rare look at an execution chamber this month could spark public debate in a country where a hefty majority supports retaining the death penalty.
Chiba, who used to be a member of a lawmakers’ group opposing capital punishment, had not signed off any executions since she took power last September, but suddenly did so in July. She did not give specific reasons for her move.
But she took the unusual step of attending the hangings, and then said she would open up the gallows in Tokyo to media and set up a group within the ministry to study the death penalty.
Information on the execution process is scarce in Japan, which along with the United States is one of only two Group of Eight rich countries that retain capital punishment.
Japan currently has 107 people on death row.
Supporters and opponents of capital punishment agree it is unlikely to be abolished in Japan in the near future, but activists hope to use the momentum generated by opening up the gallows to cast a spotlight on the issue.
“The key is what type of debate could take place in the Japanese society after the opening of the execution chamber, including the role of the media and myself,” said Nobuto Hosaka, a former lawmaker and an activist against death penalty.
Experts say inmates are notified of the timing of their execution only on the morning it is carried out, usually about an hour beforehand, and families are not given an advance warning.
Once the execution takes place, the Justice Ministry releases the name and crimes of the inmate.
“The death penalty is scary because we don’t know much about it,” said Tomohiro Umino, a 31-year-old engineer.
“I say that I support death penalty but it is based on limited information. But my decision could change if more information becomes available,” he said.
While opening the gallows to the media could prompt more public awareness, some critics of the death penalty doubt it will bring about major change.
“This could be thought as a step forward, but as Amnesty we think this is absolutely not enough in terms of publicizing information,” said Osamu Amano of Amnesty International Japan.
“The situation is hidden behind a thick veil of secrecy,” he said, adding that information such as health conditions of inmates should be accessible to third parties.
Public support for the death penalty is rising in Japan, according to a government survey, in contrast with other developed countries.
Last year, 86 percent said retaining the death penalty is unavoidable, compared to 80 percent in 1999, although a recent NHK public TV survey showed a lower support figure of 57 percent.
Experts say intensified media coverage of crime, worries about safety and the doomsday cult Aum Shinri Kyo’s 1995 gas attack on Tokyo subways have led to public support for harsh sentences.
Political debate on the issue remains limited, as many lawmakers feel calls to abolish the death penalty would not help them win votes.
But when a new lay judge system started last year, experts were concerned over how little the public knows about the death penalty, even though the new system means ordinary people may have to become involved in handing down such sentences.
“Seeing the actual place where executions take place could make a difference in terms of the sense of reality,” said Takeshi Tsuchimoto, a former prosecutor who supports the death penalty.
Opponents also point to the danger of executing someone who is innocent. The issue of false charges came under the spotlight last year when a man was released from jail after 17 years when his conviction for killing a four-year-old girl was overturned after DNA evidence.
Yasuyuki Tokuda, a lawyer who is working to reopen the case of a man hanged in 2008, said executions should not take place so long as there is any possibility of a mistake.
“Even if he is found innocent, (the executed inmate) Mr. Kuma cannot come back,” he said.
“I hope to do my best to win an acquittal in this retrial and start a big move toward a review of the death penalty system.”
Editing by Miral Fahmy