Like all prisoners on Japan’s death row, Masao Akahori knew that his execution would come without warning. The fear made him stiffen at the sound of the guards’ approaching footsteps, wondering if the clack of boots was a countdown to death or would pass by, fading into the silence of another reprieve.
One morning in the early 1970s, the march stopped outside Akahori’s cell and a key turned the lock.
“We have come to fetch you,” the guards told him.
Akahori remembers his legs collapsing under him, that five guards had to drag him from his cell. He remembers the nervous whispering when the guards suddenly realized they had come to hang the wrong man.
It was Yamamoto they wanted. In the next cell.
“They put me back, no apology, and went for Yamamoto,” Akahori recalls. He is 75 now, with watery eyes, a ghost of the 24-year-old who was living under bridges in 1954 when he says police beat a false confession out of him that he had raped and murdered a schoolgirl. “They closed the small window in my cell so I couldn’t see what was going on with Yamamoto.
“But I could hear them,” he says, in a voice that still trembles with the telling.
Akahori says he was so traumatized by his near-death experience that, for several years, he could not speak. But he did eventually win a retrial, and in 1989, after 31 years on death row, he was declared not guilty and released.
Yet his story remains precious. Not simply because he survived to tell it, but because it offers a rare peek into the mists of Japan’s death row, where prisoners live in conditions designed to induce submission and where executions, all by hanging, are carried out in secret.
The Japanese government says 75 inmates await execution, living under rules set out in a 1908 prison law and tightened by directives in 1963:
They are prohibited from talking to other prisoners. Their contact with the outside world is limited to infrequent, supervised visits from family or their lawyers. They are not allowed hobbies or television, and may own only three books, though more can be borrowed with the warden’s permission as long as the content is not deemed to preach “subversion of authority.” Exercise is limited to two short sessions a week outside their cells, four solid walls and one small window. Some rely on sleeping pills, bought with money provided by their families, to survive the isolation.
Many prisoners live in this purgatory for more than two decades while appeals against their sentences churn through Japan’s notoriously sluggish legal system. But once appeals are exhausted, executions will come without notice, on the whim and with the stamp of the justice minister.
There are no last meals. Hangings are carried out without witnesses, and the inmate’s family members aren’t informed until the prisoner is dead and they are told to collect the body.
Japan’s bar associations and human rights groups have long protested -- to a public that shows little inclination to listen -- that conditions on death row are an “affront to human decency.” But corrections officials argue that the system is designed to ensure prisoners on death row remain calm, do not become suicidal and do not try to escape.
“We want to maintain the mental stability of those waiting for death,” says Kenichi Matsumura, a specialist at the Adult Correction Section of the Justice Ministry. “Emotionally, everybody wants them to face their last moments in peace.”
Whether that works is an open question. During his years on death row, Akahori often heard those footsteps stop at other cells. Some prisoners went compliantly, he says. Others fought vigorously.
“Of course, some people don’t want to die,” Akahori says. “They shout. And the guards would try to cover their mouths and tie their hands with towels to take them away.”
The gag extends to a clampdown on public information from death row. The executed prisoner’s name is never released, becoming known only if the family chooses. There are no Stanley Tookie Williams-style media frenzies in Japan, no debates about the sincerity of a prisoner’s remorse or the merits of redemption. You don’t see candlelight vigils outside Japanese prisons on the night of scheduled executions, because only the authorities know one is coming.
Even Japanese lawmakers have difficulty seeing conditions for themselves. In 2003, nine lawmakers fought for and won the right to visit an execution chamber, though not witness an execution. It was the first time legislators had been allowed inside since 1973, according to Amnesty International, which says Japan’s death row violates the country’s signed pledges on human rights protection. (Corrections officials refused the Los Angeles Times permission to visit any of the seven penitentiaries that hold death row units.)
What little the world knows about conditions inside comes from the few prisoners, such as Akahori, who have survived to tell their stories -- four prisoners were released from death row in the 1980s when their convictions were overturned -- or from the rare writings from prison that get past censors.
“We have to sleep under a bright light,” Masashi Daidoji complained in his prison diary, “Being Convicted for Execution.” “I asked for an eye mask but it was turned down as it covers our face. No wonder not a few people take sleeping pills.”
Daidoji is on death row for his role in the bombing of a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries building by left-wing radicals in 1974 that killed eight people and wounded 380 others. His diary, passed outside in letters to his family and published by a small Tokyo publishing house owned by his cousin Masakuni Ota, is a compendium of complaints about “smelly rice” eaten next to the toilet, and cells that were freezing cold in winter and suffocatingly hot in summer.
The book was published in 1997. Daidoji is still on death row.
Indeed, the number of executions in Japan is low, and the pace slow. For one thing, Japan’s murder rate is among the lowest in the world. And despite overwhelming popular support for the death penalty in Japan, most justice ministers in recent years have been reluctant to sign death warrants; they often delay.
Only one prisoner was hanged last year, and two the year before. The majority of those condemned to die are, in fact, being condemned to years of solitary confinement -- poised on the brink for a death that could call at any moment.
“It’s hard to wait,” says Akahori, who lives in a small apartment in Nagoya on the proceeds from a modest settlement he received for his wrongful conviction. He rarely goes out, but lends his voice to campaigns on behalf of two death row prisoners still claiming their innocence. One has been on death row since 1966, the other since 1961.
“I sometimes thought: The sooner, the better. In 1974, I talked to my supporters and said, ‘Maybe it is better I go,’ ” he says. “I wanted to die, but I’m not strong-willed enough to kill myself. And I had no weapon.”
Prison officials defend their treatment of the condemned as necessary security steps. Matsumura says lights are left on in the cells 24 hours a day to “allow the guards to watch so they won’t run away.” Sleep masks are not allowed because they could be used to fashion a cord that prisoners might use to kill themselves.
Daidoji’s diary records his being alarmed at the “swollen, expressionless faces” all around him -- ill from the mental strain of isolation and lack of exercise -- and he vows to exercise to maintain his health. But the guards prevent him from even doing push-ups or stretching exercises in his cell.
“Moving your arms around would be OK, but push-ups or something that makes noise is not allowed -- it would disturb others,” Matsumura says. Prisoners are calmer if they are prevented “from getting unnecessary information or stimulation from the outside world,” he says.
So there is no TV. Radio is allowed, but the prisoners have no say over the station. Some prisons allow videos, but that is at the discretion of prison wardens.
Any prisoner unhappy with his treatment can take it up with a Justice Ministry representative who must, by law, visit every two years.
Critics say the sedated atmosphere on death row leads to a numbed despair, even among those still trying to prove their innocence. Last fall, Tomoaki Takanezawa, 38, abandoned his appeals against his death sentence despite insisting he is innocent of murdering two men in 2003, contending that the system is so weighted against the condemned prisoner that “the results are obvious.”
Takanezawa’s lawyer said his client had become emotionally unstable under the strain of living on death row.
Yet there is very little public debate in Japan about the death penalty, let alone death row conditions. Polls show about four in five Japanese support capital punishment, a consensus reinforced by a lingering national trauma from the 1995 sarin nerve gas attacks carried out by the Aum Supreme Truth cult, which killed 12 Tokyo subway commuters and sickened thousands.
Thirteen Aum members are on death row, although only one has exhausted all his appeals. Lawyers for the cult’s leader, Shoko Asahara, 50, have refused to appeal his death sentence, claiming that their client does not speak other than to groan, and is therefore incapable of preparing a defense.
But last week, a court decided that Asahara was feigning dementia and is capable of speech. The Japanese media have cited reports that, in November, Asahara yelled, “Go home, idiots!” at family members who came to visit him.
The latest ruling brings Asahara closer to execution, reopening the emotional wounds from that terrorist attack. It also comes at a time when Japan has been shocked by an unusual spate of child killings, leaving many here wondering if their country is sliding toward Western levels of violence.
All of this undermines the tiny political constituency for abolishing the death penalty or improving prison conditions.
In the fall, Justice Minister Seiken Sugiura announced just hours after taking office that he would not sign any more execution warrants because of his opposition to capital punishment. By the next day, a rebellious Justice Ministry bureaucracy had forced him to “correct” himself. He promised to carry out his duties with “careful consideration.”
“The bureaucrats don’t want people to talk about it; they want to continue going about it in secret,” said Ota, the Tokyo book publisher and cousin of Daidoji. “And the general public tends to be indifferent. This is a society without much debate, very conformist, very cold toward people who are different.
“Instead of thinking about this issue, they prefer to push it aside, not to see it. If we don’t see it, we don’t have to think about it.”
Akahori said the hardest part of his incarceration, next to the fear of dying, was the ban on talking to other prisoners.
“We were not allowed to communicate, but we would knock on the walls at the back of the cell to make sure the other guy was OK,” Akahori says. “Sometimes they would bring entertainers into the prison, but those of us on death row were not allowed to attend the show. We had to listen to a tape of it later.”
Matsumura, the Justice Ministry official, explains the rationale: “They have to be separated. I don’t think any prison warden would allow them to gather. The basic idea is we don’t want them to communicate to plan to escape together.
“If we give them more freedom, then there is a risk of them escaping,” he says. “If you limit freedom, we can keep control.”
Naoko Nishiwaki of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.