This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
Koichi Shoji, 64, and Yasunori Suzuki, 50, two Japanese men convicted of multiple murders and sexual assault cases, were hanged to death in the early morning of August 2 at their respective detention centers. They mark Japan’s first two executions of the year.
Shoji, along with his girlfriend, robbed and murdered two housewives in 2001. Suzuki killed three women in three separate incidents in 2004. He raped one of these victims and attempted to do so on the other two.
Japan and the United States are the only two developed democracies to uphold capital punishment. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s rule since 2012, there have been 38 executions in the country. One hundred ten people currently remain on death row. Amnesty International, which has campaigned to abolish the death penalty for over 40 years, now calls on Japan to reconsider its use of capital punishment. Japan's Federation of Bar Associations is joining that call, demanding that the country ends its practice by 2020.
The conversation around Japan’s history of capital punishment picked up momentum in the summer of 2018, when the country executed more people than it had in previous years. It executed 13 members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult who were part of a deadly gas attack in a Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 13 people.
Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director, said in a statement, “These executions demonstrate the Japanese government’s shocking disregard for human life.” She continued to say that “Japan remains stuck in the past by continuing with this ultimate cruel and irreversible punishment.”
Rife also pointed out that Japan is set to host the United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in April 2020. She condemned the use of capital punishment which appears to persist in the country, despite Kyoto playing host to find “viable solutions” in response to crimes.
According to Amnesty International, executions in Japan are “shrouded in secrecy.” Prisoners who are put to death are given just a few hours notice, while some aren’t giving any warning whatsoever. Their families and legal representatives are also given no notice, and typically find out after the prisoners are hanged.
In an article, Japan Society Fellow Charles Lane brings readers behind the horror of the act, calling it a “secret theater” and describing the “surprisingly attractive” exterior of the gallows. Other articles have also described similar conditions, where the environment seems almost dissonant to the act. Some of these death chambers have artwork adorning the walls, Buddhist altars outside, and bright lights resembling a family living room more than anything else. Trap doors stand in the middle, eventually opening up to lead the prisoners to their deaths.
Lane describes how prison guards cannot legally refuse to carry out a hanging. These guards receive an addition to the salary of $180 for their cooperation. More often than not, they are ordinary members of prison staff – not professional executioners by nature.
Strangely, Japan’s public seems to support the law. In 2015, a survey conducted by the government found that 80 percent of the respondents were in favor of keeping capital punishment as a viable punishment for criminals. The same question got 54 percent of the United States’ population agreeing.
“There is a saying: ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’,” said Kotaro Yamakami, a 25-year-old politics student speaking to the Japan Times. “I think it’s unavoidable that those who committed heinous crimes are executed.”