Ben Hills

Sakae Menda won’t enter the little shrine to pray. It is kimochi warui, he says – it gives him a creepy feeling.

Seventy of his friends are buried in this mossy graveyard, under unmarked stones. They were all killed just a short walk from where he knelt in his cell in Fukuoka Jail – taken to the gallows, handcuffed and blindfolded, and dropped through an electrically-released trapdoor with a noose around their necks.

Every morning around 8 o’clock Menda would listen as the heavy boots of the guards echoed on the flagstones past the cells on death row. There was no warning if it was your turn to die until you heard them stop and turn the key in the door.

They gave you half an hour to prepare yourself for death – to say goodbye to the other death row inmates, to write your will, to visit the Christian chapel or the Buddhist priest to pray, to smoke one last cigarette and to compose a haiku, a Japanese verse.

Menda, who was converted to Christianity during his 34 years fighting to prove his innocence, wrote his own farewell poem one day when he was convinced he would be the next to hang.

This and that
beyond the illusion
stands a cross.
Some die calmly.

The last words of Misao Katagiri, who spent 17 years waiting to hang for shooting a policeman, were to the warders: “Thank you so much for taking care of me for such a long time. I never thought right up to the last moment you would treat me as a human being. Thank you and goodbye.”Others take it badly, struggling and shouting their innocence.

The warders are given a set time to carry out the execution, and, says Menda, it is not uncommon for them to beat and kick a condemned man into submission, dragging him bodily to the gallows.

If it wasn’t for Sakae Menda, Japanese citizens would know nothing of these awful particulars of how the death penalty is carried out in their name. In fact, most people had believed until March, when news leaked out of three hangings, that Japan had quietly dropped it from the statute books.

Executions are carried out in total secrecy – no public announcement is made, and the families of many of the condemned men do not know they are dead until they receive a letter asking them to pick up the man’s possessions. The Justice Ministry refused even to tell an investigation team from Amnesty International whether any executions had taken place during the year prior to their visit.

Karel van Wolferan (The Enigma of Japanese Power, Macmillan) estimates that from World War II up to 1987 a total of 570 people were sent to the gallows -a figure which puts Japan in the top 30 of countries which still have the death penalty. And, extraordinarily, Sakae Menda was the first man to walk free after being condemned.

He is now taking a leading role in a campaign by Amnesty and other human rights organisations – including a number of Christian groups – to have Japan sign a 1989 United Nations resolution abolishing the death penalty.

Menda, then a small-time black marketeer aged 21, was arrested in 1948 in a hot springs town called Hitoyoshi, in the mountains of central Kyushu. He was accused of the axe murder of a couple who had been killed during a robbery.

Throughout his interrogation and trial he maintained his innocence – quite extraordinarily, considering that even today police can hold people for up to 23 days without charge, interrogating them for 16 hours a day, and in more than three quarters of criminal cases, extracting a “confession”. He was, nevertheless, convicted and sentenced to death. He was framed, he says, because he knew too much – he had an alibi for the night in question, but the girl he was with was an under-age prostitute paying protection money to the police.

The next 34 years were a nightmare, as Menda – who had little education and no knowledge of the law – fought for his freedom in appalling conditions.

“At first I was so frightened of dying I went mad. They pointed a gun at me, stripped me and chained me up – they left me like that for two months, lying in my faeces and eating like a dog from a bowl on the floor.”

For many years, the only visitor he had was a Christian activist whose encouragement – spiritually and practically – helped Menda through the Kafkaesque maze of the Japanese criminal law system. For hobbies, he kept canaries, played baseball on the prison team, and punched 1,500 books, including sections of the Old Testament, into Braille.

The other condemned men and the warders came to regard him as a sensei – a mentor and father figure – as the years turned to decades and court after court turned down his appeals.

“I lost so many good friends – I think probably 70 of them were executed while I was there, and many, many of them were as innocent as I was,” says Menda.

Finally, in 1983, he found himself in the court-house in the town of Yatsushiro as a panel of judges upheld his final appeal and ordered his release. “They went into a huddle behind closed doors for half an hour,” says Menda.

“I was terrified – I thought they were going to change their minds. But it was just that no-one in Japan had ever been released from death row before. They didn’t know what to do.”

Menda walked out into a world he had never known, having served what in Australia would be two or three “life” sentences. When he went to jail, Fukuoka was a town of thatched roofs and craters from the wartime bombing where people rode bicycles – he emerged to find a city of skyscrapers and Toyotas.

Since Menda’s release, three other prisoners on death row have also won their appeals, further fuelling calls for the abolition of the death penalty. Activists like Shigemitsu Dando, a former Supreme Court justice now a professor at Tokyo University, believe that four innocent men could easily have gone to the gallows.

There are now 55 prisoners on death row in Japan’s seven prisons where capital punishment is carried out, and another 33 who have been sentenced to death but are appealing. What has alarmed their supporters is a new hard line beingtaken on capital punishment by the Miyazawa Government. Judges in Japan have the option to impose the death sentence or a term of imprisonment for murder (and a strange assortment of 17 other crimes, including conspiring with the country’s enemies to make war on Japan).

In practice, the death penalty is only imposed for the very worst crimes -multiple murders, murders involving armed robbery, explosions, rape, insurance payouts, terrorist attacks and so on.

Until recently, Japanese lawyers had assumed that executions had been suspended, because the last four Justice Ministers – including one who was a Buddhist priest – have refused to sign the death warrant, presumably on conscientious grounds.

That all changed last December with the swearing in of Masaharu Gotoda, a 78-year-old former head of the National Police Agency, and a hard-line law-and-order man.

“The Justice Minister … must not put his head in the sand when the courts… hand down a death penalty,” he said in an interview early in April, not long after sending three men to the gallows.

Lawyers for most of the high-profile death-row inmates are planning to lodge appeals and applications for retrial. Ms Kyoko Otani, attorney for Yoko Nagata, one of the Red Brigade prisoners, said: “We will be applying (for a retrial) before the end of the month because of the recent executions. Now that it (hanging) has been resumed after three-and-a-half years, I suppose Gotoda is going to do it every year while he holds office.”

A coalition of human rights groups has also joined the campaign, pointing out that of the industrialised countries, only Japan and 36 States of the United States of America still have the death penalty. Australia, Europe, and most of the Commonwealth abolished it in the 1960s and 1970s.

Opinion polls in Japan show a firm majority of people in favour of the death penalty – Justice Minister Gotoda cites one commissioned by the Prime Minister’s office showing 67 per cent in favour. However, Amnesty says the poll was rigged, and conducted its own survey last year which found nearly 60 per cent in favour of abolition.

One hundred and eighty-two members of the Diet (Parliament) have signed a petition calling for the death penalty to be abolished – but most are from the opposition Social Democratic Party. The Government is considered unlikely to listen to appeals for abolition, at least until after the election due later this year.


THE executions sparked uproar among attorneys for some of Japan’s most celebrated death row inmates, including:

* Three United Red Army radicals who have been in Tokyo Jail for more than 20 years after carrying out Japan’s most spectacular terrorist massacre. After torturing to death 14 fellow guerillas for disloyalty (including four who were tied up and thrown into the snow to freeze to death) they had a shoot-out on prime time television with an army of police who stormed their mountain headquarters in Gunma Prefecture after demolishing it with a wrecking ball and fire hoses. Two more policemen and a bystander were killed. Their appeals were turned down in February.

* Masaru Okunishi, 67, who has been on death row for 24 years, lost his appeal in the Nagoya High Court last month. He was sentenced to death in 1969 for putting pesticide in wine he gave to 17 women – five of them died. His defence was that a vital piece of forensic evidence was wrong – teeth-marks in the bottle-cap were not his, as the prosecution claimed.

* Iwao Hakamada, a 57-year-old former featherweight boxing champion, has been in Tokyo’s Kosuge Jail for 27 years – his supporters believe he will be the next to be found innocent on appeal and released. He was convicted of the murder of a miso wholesaler and three members of his family in an arson attack.

* Masachi Daidoji, a former member of another radical gang, has been in prison for nearly 20 years for another horrific terrorist attack. He was convicted of the bombing of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in 1974, which left eight people dead.

The World’s Executioners

Executed 1991 ’85-’88

Number, Country, Rank, Rank
1050, China, 1, 3
775, Iran, 2, 1
195, USSR, 3, 10
50, Taiwan, 4, 24
30, Djibouti, 5, 59
29, S Arabia, 6, 7
23, Uganda, 7, 30
17, Malaysia, 8, 11
15, Nigeria, 9, 4
14, Sudan, 10, 34
14, USA, 10, 9
10, Mongolia, 2, –
9, S Korea, 13, 22
9, India, 14, –
9, Jordan, 14, 27
6, Singapore, 14, 49
5, Haiti, 17, 59
5, Libya, 17, 33
5, Tunisia, 17, 19
5, Yemen, 17, 14
4, Albania, 21, –
4, Chad, 21, 58
4, Egypt, 21, 28
3, Latvia, 23, –
3, Tanzania, 23, 59
2, Syria, 26, 18
2, Cuba, 26, 45
2, Dom Rep, 26, 59
2, S Africa, 26, 2
1, Antigua, 30, 57
1, Indonesia, 30, 23
1, Pakistan, 30, 8
1, St. Vincent, 30, 53

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Wednesday 12 May 1993
Edition: Late
Section: News And Features
Sub section:
Page: 15
Word count: 2041
Keywords: Death penalty Appeals
Caption: The first man to walk free after being condemned in Japan … Sakae Menda. Menda at Fukuoka Jail, where he spent much of his 34 years in prison. Seventy of his friends were executed during that time.
Table: The world’s executioners