Japan’s execution chamber opened to the press

Japan’s justice minister has allowed media to come in and look at the gallows where the executions take place:

Here is a video from TBS with more details. Apparently, the whole place smells like burning incense. The reporter has a good description of the room – 無機質 which literally means “inorganic” but I guess would be more naturally conveyed as sterile and banal.

The room is located at Tokyo Detention Center, which is a 20-minute or so walk from my house. It’s always a little disturbing to think this is where it all goes down.

I would strongly encourage people to read the NYT’s article, written by superstar Japan reporter Hiroko Tabuchi who should go down in history as their best ever Japan correspondent.

According to accounts in local news outlets, journalists were taken to the execution site in a bus with closed curtains, because its exact location is kept secret. There are seven such sites across Japan, the Justice Ministry said.

The journalists were led through the chambers, one by one: a chapel with a Buddhist altar where the condemned are read their last rites; a small room, also with a Buddha statue, where a prison warden officially orders the execution; the execution room, with a pulley and rings for the rope and a trapdoor where the condemned inmate stands; and the viewing room where officials witness the hanging.

The inmate is handcuffed and blindfolded before entering the execution room, officials said. Three prison wardens push separate buttons, only one of which releases the trapdoor — but they never find out which one. Wardens are given a bonus of about $230 every time they attend an execution.

Satoshi Tomiyama, the Justice Ministry official who later briefed the foreign news outlets and others excluded from the tour, said that wardens take the utmost care to treat death row inmates fairly and humanely.

The Buddha statues can be switched with an altar of the indigenous Japanese Shinto religion for followers of that faith, he said. For Christians, the prison provides a wooden cross. Inmates are given fruit and snacks before their execution, and sentences are not carried out on weekends, national holidays and around the New Year.

What amazes me is that this system has been in place for so long even when just about everyone, including death penalty supporters, knows there are serious problems. If nothing else, the government needs to reform the itinerary for carrying out executions. It just seems exceptionally cruel and Kafkaesque to keep the execution date secret for so many years and only tell them at the last minute. I also see no reason why the justice ministry should be allowed to hide their decision-making process on when to execute people.

Adachi-ku is really not that bad

Many of you know that Adamu lives in the Ayase neighborhood of northeast Tokyo. I also lived there for two years until moving to the west side of town earlier this summer, mostly at the behest of my new wife.

Adamu and I have both mentioned Ayase on the blog from time to time, mostly in relation to local crime-related happenings. So a reader recently asked us:

I am currently looking to move to the Nishi-Arai area, but it seems that when I ask a Japanese about Adachi-ku they all say that it is dangerous and low class. I asked a Police Officer in Kita-Senju and he said that there isn’t much violent crime, but maybe I would have to deal with loud bosozoku or getting my bicycle or umbrella stolen. For me, that is a fair trade off for drastically reduced expenses and good access around Tokyo. Anyway, I did check out the Nishi-Arai area with my own eyes and it seemed quite nice and all the people were friendly and polite. So am I missing something here or is it just the over paranoid Japanese who think more about image vs. reality?

I would say “you are not missing anything here.” Adachi-ku is, objectively speaking, a pretty good place to live. It’s convenient to central Tokyo, has many good local amenities like parks and shopping centers, and is quite cheap even compared to more distant suburbs. The perception of a high crime rate probably has more to do with the handful of high-profile incidents that have occurred there, but this is hard to avoid in any highly-populated urban area. That said, Adachi-ku is predominantly a working-class area, and this leads to some non-obvious drawbacks to living there, mainly if you plan to have a family.

One of the biggest black marks against Adachi-ku is apparently its public school system. Working-class areas of Tokyo are known for having very crappy schools which teach at such a low level, and have such a working-class student culture, that their students rarely go on to meaningful higher education (there is a discussion of this phenomenon in western Tokyo here). My wife claims that her mother once told her “If you don’t study harder, you’ll have to go to school in Adachi-ku.” It isn’t a great place to have kids.

Likewise, it can be very uncomfortable for middle-class Japanese people to socialize with their neighbors because of the class gap. This isn’t a big deal if you are a single foreign person who can socialize away from home, but if you have a Japanese stay-at-home spouse it can be problematic.

Those two factors are probably the biggest reasons why rent is comparatively low in Adachi-ku: people who are well-off enough to have families tend to avoid the area in favor of “more genteel” suburbs like Setagaya.

On another note, Adachi-ku is overpopulated and its infrastructure sometimes hasn’t quite gotten up to speed. Some train stations were built when the area was largely farmland, and don’t really have the capacity to deal with a crush of tens of thousands of people every day. Commuting to and from Ayase Station was something of an ordeal: in the morning, the outbound platform would always be full to the brim with people waiting for the next originating train to the city, and in the evening, you had to be right by the staircase when the train stopped, or else you would quickly get lost in a mob of wobbly salarymen and women clogging up the stairs. The Tobu Isesaki Line seems to be similar but perhaps a bit better (it’s comparatively easy to get a seat on an originating Hibiya Line train at Kita-Senju, even during rush hour).

Is it dangerous? Not really. Lock your doors and windows, lock your bike, keep your umbrella with you, and you will probably be fine. If you want to verify this, check out the Metropolitan Police’s violent crime map.

Watching for thieves in Ayase

This is the scene outside my apartment these days. Apparently, the Tokyo police are using a new tactic in efforts to catch bicycle thieves and purse snatchers near Ayase station.

The van is equipped with high-powered cameras that can take hi-res images with a 100m range in all directions. I saw them conducting tests a few months ago. The report emphasizes that the cameras are not running while the vehicle is in motion, and that local residents were duly warned about the cameras.

The van really stands out, as you can see. It looks like the FBI is staking out a mob boss’s house. When I first saw them testing the thing a few months ago I thought they might be preparing to film a movie. Looks like I was only half right.

The police must have invited the media to report on this new initiative because there’s also this video report. It’s cool to see my neighborhood in the news, but knowing the cops think Ayase is a hotbed of crime, while not surprising, isn’t exactly comforting.

It’s worth noting that Adachi-ku (where Ayase is located) has launched a so-called “beautiful windows” campaign. In an attempt to reduce crime in Tokyo’s most dangerous area, the government is trying to mimic the success of NYC in the Giuliani years by encouraging citizen patrols, banning smoking on the street, and painting murals on shuttered storefronts. This may dovetail with those efforts somehow.

Upper house election – what to watch for

As the voting progresses in Japan’s upper house election, it’s somewhat unclear what the big issues of the election are. For one thing, the World Cup and the scandals plaguing sumo wrestling have hogged the national spotlight. For another, the prime minister only took office about a month ago after the previous one suddenly resigned. How are you supposed to judge a government that’s only been in office a month?

So to help sort things out, I present some of the salient issues in this election and what to watch for in tonight’s results

>> Biggest question – will the DPJ get a simple majority?

As it stands, a two-party coalition, the DPJ and PNP, control the upper house with a single-vote majority. The DPJ by itself has 116 members, so it would need to increase its standing by 6 to secure a majority. There are currently 54 DPJ members up for reelection with another 62 who were elected in 2007. PM Kan has made maintaining that 54 his goal for this election, though former Secretary General and intraparty rival Ichiro Ozawa (who essentially crafted the Upper House election strategy before stepping down) thinks the party could do better.

Apparently, polling suggests a mixed bag. From Kyodo (via Shisaku blog) the DPJ is faring relatively well, but the number of undecided voters dominates support for any party.

>> If the DPJ cannot secure a majority, who will it team up with, if anybody?

Between the last lower house election in August 2009 and now, a number of small parties have sprung up, mostly offshoots from the LDP, apparently in an effort to make their presence felt in the upper house. Add to these other small parties (also mostly LDP outcasts) and there is a long list:

  • Social Democrat (ex coalition partner)

  • Your Party

  • People’s New Party (current coalition partner)

  • Sunrise Nippon

  • Happiness Realization

  • Japan Communist

  • New Renaissance

  • Spirit of Japan

  • New Komeito

  • LDP (this and New Komeito are somewhat larger)

Am I forgetting anyone? Many of them have all but ruled out teaming up with the DPJ, but I see that as playing hard to get. I mean, why bargain away your position by making conciliatory gestures?

>> Surprise performance from small parties

As I mentioned there is a large proportion of “undecided” voters. The DPJ, once sly about courting this group, took a sharp turn in the other direction with Ichiro Ozawa in charge of election planning. In the meanwhile, another party, Your Party, has taken a populist tone, railing against bureaucrats and pledging fiscal stability and deregulation. In fact they more or less promote a neoliberal platform, possibly putting the lie to the conventional wisdom that the Koizumi agenda was unpopular.

Your Party’s positive poll numbers have fueled speculation that it could punch above its weight in the polls today. With that kind of leverage it could become a more important voice post-election, which could significantly impact the DPJ legislative agenda in areas like postal privatization.

>> Will Mizuho Fukushima lose her seat? And other surprise losses

The Social Democrats were at the center of the biggest political battle of the first half of 2010, namely the debate over how and where to relocate Futenma airfield in Okinawa. Unwilling to back down from their campaign pledge to move the field off Okinawa, in the end the party quit the coalition and effectively destroyed the Hatoyama government. While public opinion seemed to be mildly on the SDP’s side, it remains to be seen if Fukushima and her partied generated enthusiasm for her party at the polls.

Fukushima is running as a proportional representation candidate. That means her party has to win around 2% of the vote before it can win even one seat in the Diet. With the new parties crowding the ballot, there’s a chance her party could be crowded out.


There are several other issues to talk about (will the Happiness Realization Party win a seat?), but that’s all the time I have for now. See you later tonight!

Upper House election – morning roundup

Mrs. Adamu enters the polling station

Today Japan votes to select half the members of its upper house of parliament. I have been lax in my blogging duties this time around, but thankfully there is a wealth of excellent writing on the election in English to choose from. To get an idea of what’s going on, I recommend:

>> Transpacific Radio is planning to do a live video feed of the results tonight. Other obligations prevent me from joining this time, but once I get home I’ll be watching from my corner of Tokyo.

>> Japan Real Time – The Wall Street Journal’s new Japan blog has been (somewhat surprisingly) a great resource for info on the election comings and goings.

>> Unfortunately, there does not seem to be an English-language live map of the results. If you read Japanese you can turn to any number of sources, though – I will be using Asahi, for the most part.

>> Conflicting takes on the election’s meaning from two people who normally agree with one another.

First, we have Michael Cucek’s article on the “meaningless” upper house election. His ultimate point as to why the high number of undecided voters in the polls:

Japan’s Meaningless Election


There is, of course, a more fundamental reason why many voters are confused and unable to make a choice, even on the eve of a historic first election under a non-LDP government–and that is the lack of a clear national purpose. Japanese voters are highly educated, law-abiding (for the most part) and eager participants in their own democracy. Ask most of them what Japan’s national goals are, however, and you’ll draw an embarrassed silence, or some dangerous platitude like ‘to live at peace with other countries.’

Without goals or aims, it’s extremely difficult to choose which path to take. Or, in this case, which party or person you want to vote for.

In contrast, here is Observing Japan:
The significance of this election has been thrown into clear relief since Kan Naoto took over from Hatoyama Yukio as prime minister and head of the DPJ. What once looked to be a referendum on the leadership of Hatoyama and DPJ secretary-general Ozawa Ichirō — a referendum that polls suggested that the DPJ would not win — is now an election on the future of Japan, perhaps to an even greater extent than last summer’s historic House of Representatives election. If the DPJ can retain control of the upper chamber, it will have three years before it will have to face the voters again in an election, provided that no snap election is called in the meantime. Those are three years that the government can use to make tough political decisions that a government with a shorter time horizon might be less inclined to make, like, say, a consumption tax increase.

And so this election is critical for Japan’s future.

I would come down somewhere in the middle. If Japanese voters have nothing more to aspire to, what was all the fuss about last year? And why was the debate over issues like Japan-US security, privatization of Japan Post, and so on, so fierce and unyielding? At the same time, this election won’t change the main party in power – the biggest question is whether the DPJ will need a coalition partner or partners to secure a majority in the upper house. Important, yes, but not the defining issue of a generation either.