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.

24 thoughts on “Japan’s execution chamber opened to the press”

  1. I’m also kind of freaked out by the fact that hanging is the method which is used. It seems brutal, and archaic. I realize any type of execution is horrible (I’m not a supporter of capital punishment), but lethal injection seems more humane (at least as humane as putting down an animal). Hanging usually breaks the neck, but I don’t know about this sort of method doing that versus strangling someone to death slowly and horribly.

    It’s all pretty gruesome, and, as you say, the fact that there is short notice makes it all that much worse.

  2. I only skimmed through the video, but I presume it didn’t mention anything about “sasaeyaku,” the poor guards who have to stand below the condemned and pull on them if they are not killed instantly by the hanging? They were the subject of the excellent fiction film “休暇” (Vacation) that was released last year, but I’ve yet to see their role mentioned in any of the news reports explaining the execution process.

  3. Adamu, would you care to explain why you think so highly of Hiroko Tabuchi? Nobody else I can think of has lavished her with such praise.

  4. I, for one, have words of praise for Tabuchi – her pieces are stylistically excellent, she gives a good sense of place in her writing, and she’s managed to largely avoid two of the more frustrating patterns in 2000s Japan writing – “OMG weird Japan” and “The Rise of Japanese Militarism”.

  5. Tabuchi is OK, but fairly typical among foreign reporters in going for human interest over depth, and lacking in skepticism required to see beyond the “buzz”. You can count on her to be a faithful echo of the popular perception of reality. Wasn’t she being roasted here a while back regarding her historical tone deafness?

  6. I criticized one part of one of her articles on JapanProbe one time, but that doesn’t mean that I have a problem with her body of work as a whole.

    There’s something to be said for human interest – much Japan reportage manages to be superficial AND dehumanizing.

  7. Perhaps one reason Tabuchi gets more of a pass is partly related to the fact that she’s accessible and seems likeable. She’s active on twitter and socializes regularly. It’s easier to give someone the benefit of the doubt if you know them, or feel you know them. I haven’t especially noticed her being a standout among foreign correspondents but I see that Adamu is talking specifically about the NYT roster.

  8. 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.

    From what I have read of the system, the execution date isn’t “kept secret for years”, it isn’t even decided until the last minute. Once all appeals are exhausted the Justice Minister has to sign the execution order within a set period of time from the final court determination, as specified by law, and the execution must take place within a set period of time after the Justice Minister signs off. This came up when Justice Minister “Sonny” Chiba signed off on two executions earlier this summer, I forget the time limits now but I believe it was just a few weeks in the case of the Justice Minister having to sign, and just a few days from that signature to the execution date.

    In any event, surely it is crueler for the murderer to keep the victim’s execution date secret right up until the last minute? At least the inmate slated for the death penalty knows what is happening and has time to prepare themselves for the moment, their victim(s) wouldn’t even have gotten that – one moment they are living their lives as normal, they next they find themselves being killed. Pretty hard to have sympathy for a convicted murderer complaining abut “unfair treatment”.

  9. She’s a standout in that her articles are never padded with generalizations copy-and-pasted from past generations of Japan correspondents.

  10. Osima Nagisa made a film on this issue on “Death By Hanging絞首刑”,some of you might find interested.

  11. Hey guys, just wanted to let you know that your blog has another security exploit problem. I found it today on a few of my Mediatemple sites, and since you guys also use them as a host, I checked your page source too.

    If you check the code for every single post, you will find that a script from

    “seconeo.com/on” has been added in by some hacker.

    So far, it doesn’t seem to do anything malicious. However, you should probably get rid of it ASAP.

  12. James, could you maybe email me warnings like this instead of posting in an unrelated thread? Easier to notice that way.

    Thanks for the warning though. However I can’t actually find where the code is coming from. It’s not in the post contents themselves, like it was last time, and it also isn’t in any of the template files, so I’m kind of at a loss.

  13. Concerning standards of Japan reporting, headlines on MSN a few minutes ago:

    US Wasted Billions in Iraq
    Pakistan Struggles to Recover from Floods
    Japanese Resort Towns Battle Marauding Monkey

    I hereby nickname the monkey “Furious George”.

  14. Gotta say, I am a little wary of sharing my thoughts on Tabuchi until that hacker is taken care of, but here goes.

    First, I was reading Jake Adelstein’s effusive praise of her on Twitter, and thought two things:

    1. It is incredibly annoying to see people write thank-you notes and ass-kissing on Twitter (that includes just about the entire Tokyo Twitter group). There needs to be some way to auto-block “had drinks with @@@@@” tweets
    2. He is absolutely right

    She just consistently gets things right, without unnecessary hyperbole or over-generalizing. Her stories are like the ideal Mutant Frog posts times 20 because she actually goes out and reports. You can point to individual wrongness here, overemphasis there. But the overall body of work speaks for itself, and I have read just about all of it.

    I mean, it shouldn’t be this hard, but apparently it is. So three cheers for level-headedness.

    On a slightly more paranoid note, I know that people from various embassies read this blog as a way to get “on the ground” knowledge. It would not surprise me if enterprising government intelligence services attacked security weaknesses to try and get IP addresses and other info on who is posting what. Not a big deal in my case, but we owe it to our readers to at least try and stay current with the software.

  15. Back on point:

    NHK is doing a half-hour “Close Up Gendai” segment on the death penalty right now. The guards were briefly mentioned, but they focused on interviews with a priest and various execution witnesses.

  16. Absolutely great manga on the death penalty – Mori no Asagao. Condemns the lack of warning for the accused as it can take away the incentive to reflect on their crimes.

    “Her stories are like the ideal Mutant Frog posts times 20”

    In a way, however, writers for Big News are constrained – essentially forced to cover the topics that are either a current wadai in Japan or fit with immediate US concerns (Toyota). The Mutant Frog advantage is that you guys are free to write on stuff that can even surprise people who read lots of Japanese language material.

  17. “On a slightly more paranoid note, I know that people from various embassies read this blog as a way to get “on the ground” knowledge. It would not surprise me if enterprising government intelligence services attacked security weaknesses to try and get IP addresses and other info on who is posting what. Not a big deal in my case, but we owe it to our readers to at least try and stay current with the software.”

    It’s best to act as if any IP you connect to on the Internet using non-encrypted traffic is being intercepted, and therefore use an anonymising proxy server if that threat bothers you. And yes, I’ve gotten emails about embassy/State Department people reading the blog (mainly after my epic Tamogami post a while back), and have seen hits from government and military IP addresses in the server logs.

  18. As for the main topic, I’ll recommend the movie 休暇 again.


    It’s an interesting story about execution in Japan, split between the perspective of a prison guard who is invited to participate in a hanging in exchange for extra vacation days he can use on his honeymoon, and the death row inmate (who has far fewer scenes, as there’s basically nothing for him to do in the cell.) It includes a very interesting scene of the hanging itself, which I don’t want to give away in too much detail, but does include a shot from an angle that I have perhaps not seen a hanging filmed from in any other film.

  19. I think that this is a clever PR move by Minister Chiba to shift the public debate towards abolition of the death penalty in Japan. She certainly has a difficult job in the conservative judicial system.

  20. “She certainly has a difficult job in the conservative judicial system.”

    She would have even more difficulty, then, with the overwhelming majority of the Japanese public that consistently polls as being in favor of the death penalty.

  21. A belated thank you, everyone, for answering my somewhat off-topic inquiry about Hiroko Tabuchi of the NY Times. It sounds like many of you like her reporting because of what she does AND doesn’t do. This leads me to conclude that you also like her because of whom she is not, namely Howard French, Norimitsu Onishi, and Martin Fackler (aka The Three Sworn Adversaries of All Dedicated Japan Hands).

    I know that coverage of Japan by the NY Times is a serious sore point for many people out there (I first became aware of this odd phenomenon more than a decade ago, when I heard a prominent Japan-oriented scholar refer to Mr. French as a “dumb-bell”). So enjoy Ms. Tabuchi’s reporting from Japan while it lasts.

  22. You forgot to mention Nicholas Kristof,AR,and frankly speaking,these three you’ve mentioned were in a way better than Kristof at least on Japan coverage.

  23. I think Kristof does some amazing work these days covering third world poverty and related topics, but he was pretty much done writing about Japan long before I started reading about it.

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