Japan hanged two men for murder Wednesday in the first executions since the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan took power last year, but the government also announced a review of capital punishment.
Justice minister Keiko Chiba, a long-time opponent of the death penalty, said she attended the executions and announced she would launch a study group within her ministry to review its use.
“I confirmed the executions with my own eyes,” said Chiba. “It made me again think deeply about the death penalty, and I once again strongly felt that there is a need for a fundamental discussion about the death penalty.”
Japan is the only industrialised democracy, apart from the United States, to carry out capital punishment — usually for multiple homicides — and according to opinion polls it has broad public support.
On Wednesday the state put to death Kazuo Shinozawa, 59, who killed six people by setting fire to a jewellery store, and Hidenori Ogata, 33, who killed a man and a woman and seriously injured two others.
The executions left 107 people on death row in Japan.
Japan last executed prisoners exactly a year earlier, when the conservative Liberal Democratic Party still ruled the country, putting to death three inmates including one Chinese national, also for multiple murder.
When the DPJ took power last September, ending more than half a century of conservative rule, it said it favoured public discussion on the death penalty.
The new government also sent a signal by appointing Chiba — then a member of the Japan Parliamentary League against the Death Penalty — as justice minister, while largely avoiding open debate on the issue.
Japan has often been criticised internationally for its use of the death penalty, and the fact that death row prisoners and their families are not told about the execution date in advance.
London-based human rights group Amnesty International last year accused Japan of keeping death row convicts in conditions that are “cruel, inhuman and degrading” and were tipping many into insanity.
The group said that at the time 97 inmates were awaiting death by hanging in Japan, with no idea if or when they would be put to death, leading to a state of uncertainty that creates enormous mental stress.
After Wednesday’s executions at the Tokyo Detention House, Chiba called a press conference and told reporters: “Under my order, the two people — Kazuo Shinozawa and Hidenori Ogata — were executed.”
“Since the executions were ordered by me, it’s my responsibility to see them through properly, so I was present at today’s executions,” she said, adding that she may have been the first justice minister to do so.
She announced her decision to launch a ministry review panel on the death penalty, and to open up death chambers to the media for the first time — though not on execution dates — to expose the process to public view.
Chiba may be replaced soon as justice minister, since she lost her parliamentary seat in upper house elections early this month, casting doubt about how much influence she will have on the issue.
Prime minister Naoto Kan has had heated discussions with his wife Nobuko about the death penalty, according to a book she published last week.
“We are totally divided as I strongly believe the death penalty should be abolished,” she said. She wrote that Kan agreed capital punishment does not stop murders but also argued there was no public will for its abolition.