Inside Tokyo’s death house: Japan opens door to the chilling execution chamber where condemned men get one hour’s notice
The sparsely furnished room with wood panelling and blue curtains could be an annex to any conference room.
However the mundanity masks the dark secrets of one of the world’s largest economies.
For this is where Japan executes those condemned to death by its courts.
The last two criminals for whom these walls were their final sight of the world were the killers Kazuo Shinozawa, 59, and Hidenori Ogata, 33, who were hanged last month.
And for the first time, the public has been allowed to see the Tokyo Detention House because the country’s Justice Minister Keiko Chiba, a known opponent of capital punishment, has decided to give journalists access.
The move is likely to spark debate over the country’s support of the death penalty which at 86 per cent remains astonishingly high.
Pictures from inside the Detention House show the carpeted floor of the chamber and the hooks on the wall indicate where the inmate is chained.
In the centre is the square trap door, the red lines marks the spot where convicts stand with the noose around their neck, before it opens below them and they plunge to their deaths.
The mechanism is triggered by one of three wall-mounted push buttons in an adjacent room, pressed simultaneously by three officers, although none of them is told which button is the live one that will cause the prisoner’s death.
It is similar to the method used when capital punishment is carried out by a firing squad – at least one of which will have a blank cartridge instead of a live round, so it is unknown who fired the fatal shot.
The trap door marked with a red square where an inmate stands, is seen opened at the execution chamber. A ceiling mounted pulley (right) is used for the hanging rope
In a stark contrast, the grey-tiled room below, into which the body drops, is cold and clinical.
In another room, a golden Buddha statue stands in an alcove for final prayers before the handcuffed convicts are blindfolded and led to their deaths.
Opposite the execution room is the gallery from where witnesses can view the hanging.
‘This reporting opportunity will provide information for public debate on the death penalty system,’ Justice Minister Keiko Chiba told a news conference. The minister attended the execution of Shinozawa and Ogata in July.
When a death order has been issued, the condemned prisoner is informed only on the morning of their execution. They are then offered a final meal.
Reporters who were taken to the prison travelled in a bus, its windows obscured by curtains to hide the chamber’s location. One of them said afterwards: ‘There was the smell of incense… The impression was that of sterile objects in a clean, carpeted room.’
Japan, along with the U.S., is one of only two Group of Eight rich countries that retain capital punishment. It currently has 107 inmates on death row.
There are 58 countries that still retain capital punishment, while 104 countries have abolished it and 35 have stopped executions in practice.
DEATH PENALTY IN JAPAN
There are 107 people on death row.
Seven people were executed in 2009.
Inmates are kept in solitary confinement in seven detention centres.
Death row inmates are notified on the morning of the execution day, usually about an hour before the execution.
Execution is by hanging. Medical experts have said that a person who is hanged immediately loses consciousness and their heart stops in about 15 minutes.
While the law says an execution must take place within six months after the sentence is finalised by the court system, in practice it usually takes several years.
Justice Minister Keiko Chiba, pictured above, announced a review of the death penalty in July
The unusual step to open its gallows for the first time comes after two killers were hanged in July in the country’s first executions in a year.
Justice Minister Chiba, a known opponent of capital punishment, signed off on the punishment and attended their hangings.
She has now set up a group within the ministry to study the death penalty.
An overwhelming majority supports the death penalty in Japan.
Last year, 86 per cent said in a government survey that retaining it was unavoidable, up from 80 per cent in 1999, though a recent NHK public TV survey put support at just 57 per cent.
Experts say they are concerned over how little the public knows about the death penalty despite a new lay judge system, introduced last year, under which ordinary citizens, along with judges, could hand down such sentences.
Japan has been criticised by the UN Committee against torture and opponents of the death penalty over the secrecy of its execution system and the psychological strain it puts on inmates and their families.
‘There will be no small impact from opening up the site of executions, until now shrouded in a thick veil,’ Kyodo news agency said.
‘It is fully possible that this will spark public debate over whether to maintain or abolish the system, as hoped for by the justice minister.’
Inmates are notified on the morning of the execution, usually about an hour beforehand, and families of inmates are given no advance notification, experts say.
The Justice Ministry in 2007 started releasing the names and crimes of inmates sentenced to death.
Details on executions had previously been strictly limited and opponents of the death penalty say the ministry still restricts information.