The Tokyo Detention Center in the capital's Katsushika Ward, where death sentence hangings are carried out and which had heretofore been visited only by some lawmakers, was shown to the media for the first time on Aug. 27.
Just a month earlier, after witnessing two executions that she had ordered, Justice Minister Keiko Chiba told a press conference that she wanted to encourage national debate on capital punishment, including whether or not the death penalty should continue to exist. To that end, she said that she would be setting up a special task force within the ministry and opening the execution chambers for viewing.
The media was shown the execution chamber, a room where the button that opens the platform trapdoor is, a room where the chief warden and prosecutors stand by to confirm that the execution has been carried out, a room where religious inmates can receive their last rites, and a front chamber where inmates are informed of their pending execution and can also receive their last rites immediately before they are executed.
The Justice Ministry did not allow members of the media to see the room below the execution chamber into which the inmate's body drops, out of "consideration for the inmates' family and wardens." A ministry official continued, "It is an extremely solemn place where lives come to an end."
No noose hung from the ceiling, and the room was said to be in the exact state that it is usually maintained.
Japan's Penal Code stipulates that the death penalty "be executed by hanging at a penal institution." The practice of placing a death-row inmate on a trapdoor, causing the noose to tighten around the neck when the trapdoor is opened, was ordered by government officials in the Meiji era -- with the same two-floor set-up -- and has remained to this day.
There are seven execution chambers across Japan in Sapporo, Sendai, Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka, but officials at the Justice Ministry say that there are currently no plans to open any execution chambers outside of Tokyo to the media. The Tokyo Detention Center has been undergoing renovations since 1996, and a total of 17 executions have taken place at the current execution chamber since December 1996.
Across the nation, 46 people were executed between 2000 and 2009, with an average of a little under six years between the time when death sentences are confirmed and when executions are carried out. The number of death-row inmates has increased due to the toughening of rulings in recent years, with 107 (of which eight are women and 56 are at the Tokyo Detention Center) currently on death row.
Chiba spoke at a press conference on Aug. 20 about the ministry's latest moves. "Sometimes we get death sentences in lay judge cases," she said. "It's important that people are informed as much as possible, so that they can make decisions and deliberate with a basic understanding."
(Original Japanese version: 東京拘置所：刑場を初公開 死刑議論、喚起狙う)
Officials describe executions in Tokyo as death chamber is unveiled to media
Inside the Tokyo Detention Center, a death-row inmate is blindfolded and his hands tied, as a chaplain continues to pray aloud. The curtain of the execution chamber is opened and the inmate is led inside. A few seconds after the curtain is closed a bang is heard as the trapdoor beneath the inmate's feet swings open. Then there is silence.
Up until now, executions in Japan have been carried out by only a handful of officials, and the process is veiled up until the inmate's final moments. On Aug. 27, the Tokyo Detention Center execution venue was revealed to the media for the first time, and officials involved in executions described the process to the Mainichi.
Many death-row inmates receive no family visits with only chaplains being permitted to see them -- out of consideration for the inmate's mental stability. Once a month, the inmate and the chaplain meet in a room inside the detention center. Most of the inmates talk continuously, as if temporarily released from a stifling existence.
The announcement of the inmate's execution comes suddenly. Officials involved learn of the executions when the detention center contacts them, asking, "Are you free tomorrow?"
In the morning, the door to the room adjoining the execution room opens and the inmate enters with a pale face.
"Your sentence will now be carried out," the detention center head informs the inmate.
Most inmates quietly accept the decision.
"I will make up for what I did," one inmate says with a faint smile. "I'll be waiting a step ahead," another says.
The chaplain thanks an inmate for his meetings and touches him, conveying the warmth of his skin. The chaplain does not witness the inmate's death. A lot of inmates are baptized at the detention center, but many turn their eyes away from their crimes and simply await death.
These inmates are continuously told to think about the reason for living. One hour after the execution, a detention center official looks over the body of one executed inmate as it lies in a coffin.
"It's over," the chaplain says.
One former prosecutor who witnessed an execution in 2008 recalled his experience. Two days before the execution was carried out, the prosecutor was summoned by the deputy chief prosecutor.
"I want you to be present," the deputy chief prosecutor said, handing over the ruling that sentenced the inmate to death.
"I thought I had to attend the execution after being convinced, so I read the ruling thoroughly," the former prosecutor recalls.
At the public prosecutors office, a draw is held at the start of each fiscal year to determine the order of public prosecutors who will attend executions.
The inmate being executed in 2008 was not one that the former prosecutor had indicted, and he had never seen the inmate's ruling. He had to be convinced of his own position when he attended the execution. When he read the ruling he concluded that there was no choice but for the execution to go ahead.
Shortly after 8 a.m. the prosecutor, head of the detention center, a medical officer and other officials gathered in a waiting room. About 10 meters in front of them a white curtain was drawn and through it they saw the silhouette of the death-row inmate talking with a chaplain. The inmate was blindfolded and made to face the prosecutor and other officials, and then the curtains were opened. No one spoke during the process.
After the noose was placed around the inmate's neck, the trapdoor beneath him was opened, and his body plunged down. The medical officer announced the time and said "Sentence carried out." The officer then approached the executed inmate, felt his wrist to take his pulse, and checked for a heartbeat with a stethoscope. When the inmate was dead, the doctor announced the time of death.
The process was completed one or two minutes after the curtain was opened. When the prosecutor returned to the office, salt was spread out in a purification ritual. The deputy chief prosecutor gave him words of encouragement, saying, "I appreciate your work." [Note: What they said in Japanese is 「お疲れさま」, o-tsukare-sama, which is a very common thing to say at a job, and means "You're a hard worker" or "Good work." You say it to people at the end of a work day, after work trips, or pretty much doing anything as is a way to thank someone for doing something at work that is work related. There's no real English equivalent, and the way it's being translated here may give the wrong impression of what was being said.]
"It's work so I don't particularly think about it," the prosecutor says.
"But the execution scene still returns to me when I close my eyes."
(Original Japanese - 刑場初公開：執行、脳裏から消えず 元検事)
A picture of the execution chambers can be found at the source links, and this CNN article has a picture of the room where the inmates are told they are about to be executed and can meet with a chaplain.