Justice Minister Keiko Chiba surprised the nation by ordering two executions, apparently after ministry officials persuaded her to fulfill her duty by citing a Cabinet survey that showed support for the death penalty in excess of 85 percent.
Chiba, an opponent of capital punishment, attended the executions Wednesday at the Tokyo Detention House. Afterward, she announced plans for a study group to discuss capital punishment and to allow the media to see inside execution chambers.
|Justice Minister Keiko Chiba leaves a press conference.
Early Wednesday morning, Chiba went straight from her home in Yokohama to the detention center. Though usually clad in bright pinks and greens, Chiba wore a gray suit on the day.
The execution chamber in the Tokyo Detention House is a two-story facility. After being informed that the sentence will be carried out, the death-row inmate is moved to the execution chamber where the condemned criminal stands on a trapdoor. After having a noose placed around his or her neck, a prison officer pushes a button in an adjacent room and the prisoner falls through the trapdoor.
The inmates executed Wednesday were Kazuo Shinozawa, 59, and Hidenori Ogata, 33.
The ministry's criminal affairs bureau chief, the head of the detention house, and prosecutors and officials from the Tokyo High Prosecutors Office watched the executions with Chiba through a glass wall. The executions were completed by about 10 a.m.
Ministry officials said Chiba appeared tense and pale after returning to the ministry.
According to high-ranking ministry officials, Chiba gradually changed her mind regarding executions, finally deciding to sign the execution orders after being persuaded by ministry officials, who wanted to avoid having zero executions during Chiba's tenure.
A high-ranking ministry official said that this spring, Chiba began to refer to the signing of death penalty orders as "one of the minister's duties."
"The minister might have decided to sign the execution orders before the House of Councillors election. I distributed trial records on the two death-row inmates before the election," the official said.
The Justice Ministry explained to Chiba that the public would find it difficult to understand why she keeps avoiding signing execution orders, especially as the lay judge system has forced even ordinary people to make difficult decisions concerning the death penalty.
The ministry official also attributed Chiba's decision to the fact that public support for the death penalty reached a record high of 85.6 percent in a February Cabinet survey.
In the recent election, Chiba lost her Diet seat, and she might have been criticized if she signed an execution order as a private citizen. For this reason, Chiba told the ministry last week that she would sign an execution order and also attend the execution.
On Saturday--one day before Chiba's tenure as a lawmaker expired--she signed the execution orders at her ministry office.
Stressing the need for raising nationwide discussions about capital punishment after being appointed justice minister, Chiba has also said execution chambers should be open to the media. Some ministry officials, however, have expressed concern that merely opening execution chambers to the public, while continuing to delay executions, would send a message that the ministry is going to abolish the death penalty.
Chiba and the ministry finally reached a compromise in that information should be disclosed at the time of an execution.
"While public interest in the country's criminal justice system has been increasing, each person may eventually be asked to shoulder the responsibility of making a decision [on the death penalty]. I'd like to publicize the results of the study group, which I hope will lead to a nationwide discussion of capital punishment," Chiba told reporters.
Concrete plans for the study group and a date for opening execution chambers to the media have yet to be announced.
However, these proposals will surely help expose this country's closed system of capital punishment to public scrutiny, and lead to a new phase of discussions on the issue.