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2. Japan

Three Cups of Sake

Few people know that Japan still has the death penalty, and fewer yet are aware just how cruelly it is enforced: death row prisoners have no contact with the outside world and are allowed to receive only one visit from direct family each month. They are held in isolation cells the size of a small bathroom, where they await execution for an average of seven years. However, the order to proceed may come at any time so that the condemned awake each morning with the thought that the day may be their last. This policy is supposed to avoid ‘disturbing their peace of mind’, but many are driven to the point of insanity by the stress and anxiety of knowing their lives will end, but not when. This is truly mental torture.

Executions are carried out in secret. Everything goes ahead swiftly when the order finally comes, leaving the condemned only moments to prepare themselves to face the gallows. They are not even allowed to say goodbye to their families. On the morning of the execution, two guards with the strength to control a struggling man grasp the prisoner by the arms and drag him from his cell. The trio stop only when they come to a Buddhist or Christian altar. A curtain hides the chamber where the gallows awaits. Its walls are wood-lined, the floor is padded and a noose hangs from the ceiling. A glass wall separates this area from witnesses and the authorities. Once inside, the prisoner is asked whether he has anything to say.

Three guards wait by three switches in the execution chamber. The condemned man stands handcuffed and hooded. His feet are tied and the noose is placed around his neck. The three guards simultaneously depress their switches, so that none can know who activated the gallows. A trapdoor in the floor opens and the prisoner drops. In the room beneath a doctor waits to take the hanged man’s pulse, accompanied by a prison official and a representative of the Japanese Ministry of Prosecutions. They stay for a few minutes to make sure that he is really dead, and then they take down the body and put it into a coffin, which is removed to the prison morgue. Only then is the condemned man’s family informed that the sentence has been carried out. Many families refuse to take charge of the body. By tradition the guards are allowed a cup of sake at the end of it all.

2.1. Sakae Menda

Only four convicts have been freed after proving their innocence in Japan´s recent history. The first of these was Sakae Menda, who spent 34 years on death row

Sakae Menda at home in Omuta City. 2010.

On 30 December 1948 a man burst into the house of a priest and his wife in Kumamoto Prefecture on the Japanese island of Kyushu and killed them both using a knife and an axe, at the same time wounding their two young daughters. These were the years of post-war poverty, and Menda, at the time a poor uneducated young peasant of 23, had been arrested just a few days earlier for stealing rice. He soon became the principal suspect.

The police detained him for three weeks, and in all that time he was hardly permitted to eat, drink or rest. Menda was tortured and threatened for days on end. He was strung up from the ceiling by his ankles and beaten with bamboo staves, and he was denied access to a lawyer until a confession had been wrung out of him. After signing a statement drawn up for him by the police, Menda was sentenced to death for the double murder on Christmas Day 1951. He would not leave Fukuoka prison again until 1983. Menda swore at his first trial that the police had forced him to confess and that he had a verifiable alibi, but his testimony was ignored because the investigating officers submitted statements made by a false witness. His lawyer, a Buddhist monk, met him only once before the trial began, though not to offer professional help to rebut the charges against him. Instead, he confined himself to praying for the accused and sought to convince him to accept his fate. Menda was sentenced to death in 1951.

Sakae Menda with a pet dog belonging to one of his prison guards. Fukuoka prison around 1960.

For the next 34 years of his life, he would be confined to a five-square metre cell without heating but brightly lit and watched around the clock. Visits soon stopped. His parents eventually disowned him, unable to stand the social stigma of having a son accused of murder, a terrible disgrace in Japan. In the meantime, he saw 35 of his fellow prisoners disappear. He will never forget the dread he awoke to every morning, the terror of the end that would seize him when the execution squads appeared. “You could hear their footfalls in the corridor. Your heart just stopped and you only started breathing again after they had passed the door of your cell.” Any one of the more than 10,000 days he spent in the prison could have been his last. He was released from Fukuoka prison at the age of 56 when he was found absolved after his sixth appeal. The Japanese government paid Menda compensation of 7,000 yen for each day he had spent in prison, making a total of 90 million yen. He donated half of the money to an association dedicated to opposing capital punishment.

Sakae Menda surrounded by lawyers and journalists after his absolution. 15 july 1983.
Sakae Menda few months after being released. Pictures from his family album.
Sakae Menda in the garden of his house in Omuta City. 2010.

2.2. Iwao Hakamada

47 years and 7 months. No one in the World has spent longer on death row awaiting the noose. His sister Hideko spent the same time defending him, obeying their mother’s dying wish that her younger son, Iwao, should be absolved of any crime

Iwao Hakamada, 2015.

The nightmare endured by Iwao Hakamada and his family began on 30 June 1966. He was 30 years old and he had never had much luck in life. His career as a professional boxer had begun well enough and at the age of 21 he was already sixth in Japan’s featherweight ranking, but then a knee injury sustained in 1962 cut short his career. The strain of failure broke up his marriage, although his young son stayed with him. Destitute and alone, he began working at a miso factory in the town of Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, to earn his keep and bring up his son. However, the factory was destroyed by fire only a few months after he began working there, and when the blaze was finally put out the owner, his wife and two of his children aged 17 and 14 were found murdered. Their bodies smelled of gasoline and they had been stabbed more than 40 times in all. Some 200,000 yen were missing. This quadruple murder in a quiet corner of Japan drew immediate media attention, and it stayed front page news for weeks.

The police were all over Hakamada from the first. An ex-boxer, destitute and divorced, he soon became their principal suspect. He had been alone at the time of the fire, resting in his room in the factory building, so he had no alibi. Iwao was interrogated and then released a couple of times, but the police had found a small bloodstain on his clothing and despite his protestations that he had cut his hand at work, they seized on it as evidence to arrest him again on 18 August 1966. Iwao confessed to the crime some 20 days later.

Japanese criminal justice has changed little since the 15th century, at least as far as the treatment of suspects is concerned, and it remains to a great extent based on the extraction of confessions by torture and ill-treatment. It is assumed by the police and the courts that interrogations must be long, often tough and sometimes coercive. Hakamada endured 23 days of questioning for up to 16 hours each day, during which he was beaten and threated, systematically deprived of sleep, food and water, or the use of a toilet. On 6 September 1966 he signed a statement after 20 days of this torture, implicating himself in the crimes of multiple homicide, robbery and arson. The police and the public prosecutor convinced him that the truth would come out in court if he really was innocent. An officer drew up his confession, and a physically and mentally exhausted Iwao put his name to it before collapsing onto the table. One of the policemen present grabbed his hand, rubbed his finger in a pad of ink and put his fingerprint on the document, which read, “It was I who killed my boss’ family. I am very sorry. As of this moment I will tell everything that happened.”

Iwao with a puppy in his arms around 1944. Album of the Hakamada family.
Iwao in Hamakita, his hometown, before he turns 20 years old.
Iwao (sitting on the left), his brother (standing with a cloth on his head) and two friends in Hamakita.

Iwao signed two further statements that day, the first of them five and the second 76 pages long. Hakamada was not allowed to read any of these three statements before signing, and nor were they read aloud to him by the police. In most democracies, a confession obtained after interrogations lasting for more than 200 hours would be treated as involuntary, unreliable and inadmissible as evidence. Not in Japan. Between his arrest and his confession, Hakamada was questioned for upwards of 264 hours, and in all of that time he able to speak with his lawyers on only three occasions for a total of 37 minutes. None of these interrogations was recorded or transcribed verbatim. Hakamada’s lawyers have always maintained that the confessions he signed followed a script made up by the police weeks before he was eventually arrested.

Japanese criminal justice has changed little since the 15th century, at least as far as the treatment of suspects is concerned, and it remains to a great extent based on the extraction of confessions by torture and ill-treatment. It is assumed by the police and the courts that interrogations must be long, often tough and sometimes coercive.

At his trial, held one year later in 1967, Iwao retracted his confession and declared that the police had tortured him for more than 20 days. Hakamada himself asked one of his interrogators in court, “Is it not true that what the detectives have called my ‘series of confessions’ is actually a fiction, a thriller dreamed up by the police themselves?”

The forensic specialists called to the witness stand were unable to confirm that the drop of blood found on Iwao’s pyjamas belonged to any of the victims, because the sample was too small for analysis, but this changed nothing. The evidence was discredited, but prosecutors in Japan are not obliged to present all of their proofs at once, and they then declared that the police had found the killer’s blood-soaked clothes hidden in a barrel of miso, claiming that they belonged in fact to the accused. The defence countered that the police had planted the clothes in order to incriminate Iwao, who would not admit that they were his own. It was even shown in court that the items were far too small for a man of his stature, but not even this exculpatory evidence was enough for the judges.

In September 1968, two years after his arrest, Iwao was found guilty and sentenced to hang. The appeal filed by his defence lawyers was turned down by the Tokyo court in 1976 and then in 1981 by the Japanese Supreme Court. When his conviction became final, Iwao was transferred to death row in Tokyo’s maximum security prison.

Iwao Hakamada in Hamakita around 1956.
Promotional photograph of the boxing match held on April 19, 1961 at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum, in Manila, Philippines. Iwao (on the right) front Filipino boxer Marcing David.
One of the confessions signed by Iwao while undergoing police questioning after his arrest in 1966.
The blood-stained clothing allegedly belonging to the murderer presented as evidence at the trial against Iwao Hakamada.
Iwao tries on the clothes during his trial in 1968, which ended with his being sentenced to death.
Norimichi Kumamoto, one of the three judges who sentenced to death Iwao Hakamada in 1968. Fukuoka, 2010.

Norimichi Kumamoto

The youngest of the three judges who convicted Hakamada, never agreed with the verdict, but his was the minority vote. “There was nothing I could do. It was two against one,” he would say years afterwards. The other two judges had rejected the closely worded document of 360 pages in which he argued his belief that the accused was innocent.

The ‘discovery’ of the bloody garments in the barrel of miso was the turning point for Kumamoto, when he began to doubt that the accused was guilty. If it was a pair of pyjamas that had led to his arrest, how could it be that the definitive proof of his guilt was another bundle of clothes found only months later? How could the garments, which were several sizes too small, belong to Hakamada? The other two judges saw things quite differently, however. In their eyes, this was the definitive proof that Iwao was indeed the murderer. During the deliberations of the court, judge Kumamoto argued that Hakamada was innocent, while the second judge believed he was guilty and deserved the death penalty. The casting vote fell to the president of the court, who finally decided to convict Hakamada based on his confession. Judge Kumamoto refused to sign the verdict in protest, but it fell to him to draft and then read the final sentence, which would change not only the convict’s life but also his own forever. He was 29 years old at the time, and he never recovered. Just one year later, Kumamoto, at the time a young judge with a bright future ahead of him –he had been top his class at law school–, left the profession prey to terrible fits of depression. Though he never spoke about it to his wife, family or friends, his remorse and feelings of guilt ruined his career and eventually his whole life. He became an alcoholic, was divorced twice and was eventually estranged from his daughters. He attempted suicide several times. He kept his silence until he could bear it no longer.

“I pray every day that Mr. Hakamada will be absolved and freed from death row.”
Norimichi Kumamoto, 2007.

Suffering from cancer and Parkinson’s disease, he appeared before the media in 2007 to declare that he had never believed that Iwao was guilty and beg forgiveness of the Hakamada family for all the pain he had caused them. Before speaking out, Kumamoto had already contacted Hakamada’s legal team, risking charges for breaching the law of judicial secrecy, which prohibits judges from discussing joint decisions after they have been handed down. “I have thought about his trial for 39 years,” said Kumamoto, by that time 70 years old, to the journalists present at his press conference. “I have felt only sorrow and regret over this,” he went on. “I believed that we should not find him guilty, that the evidence presented by the prosecutors made no sense. Neither the trousers nor the T-shirt were his size. The other judges just argued that the accused could have grown fatter in prison, or that the garments might have shrunk after being submerged in the miso.”

Norimichi Kumamoto. Fukuoka, 2015.

Hideko Hakamada

Iwao’s elder sister, would visit him every month for 48 years on end. In the early years of his imprisonment, she also kept up an almost daily correspondence with her brother. She still has hundreds of letters exchanged between them, which were edited and published by activists in 1992. In these first years, Iwao seemed strong and confident. As time went, however, his letters expressed ever more bitterness and anger, and these feelings only grew stronger as the years went by until he began to show signs of seriously disturbed thoughts and behaviour. At the end of 1991, Iwao stopped answering and began to refuse visits. Not long afterwards, he suddenly refused to recognize Hideko, saying “I have no sister.” In spite of this rejection, Hideko went on writing and visiting every month to let Iwao know that he was not alone and that ever more people were now demanding that he be released. She took part in hundreds of meetings, marches and rallies throughout Japan, some of them focusing on her brother’s case and other on the problems of the country’s criminal justice system. For the first ten years she did this alone, and she could not even say openly that she believed her brother to be innocent. Little by little, however, she was able to form a support group around her efforts.

“At first i would ask him if he was well when i went to visit him. He would say only ‘yes’, but that was enough for me. It was the only word i wanted to hear.”
Hideko Hakamada.

Hideko at his home in Hamamatsu in 2010 with the binders full of letters she and Iwao exchanged during his years in prison.
The team of Iwao defense lawyers. From left to right: Yoshiyuki Todate, Katsuhiko Nishijima and Osamu Murasaki. Tokyo, 2010.

Katsuhiko Nishijima

Is the lawyer who directed the legal team that spent years campaigning for Hakamada’s release. Their initial appeals, filed in 1976 and 1980, were turned down. They tried again without success in 1994, 2004 and 2008. However, the case became much more public in 2007 when the former judge Kumamoto publicly declared that he believed Hakamada to be innocent. This not only drew the attention of the media but also encouraged the creation of ‘Save Hakamada’ support groups. The Japanese Pro Boxing Association also launched a its own campaign and a cross-party grouping of 57 members of the Japanese Diet also backed the cause. These campaigns received a further boost in 2010 when the film director Takahashi Banmei released his film Box telling the former pugilist’s story. Amnesty International also took up the case in 1981, at first collecting signatures and then publicizing it in its international anti-death penalty campaigns. Even the actor Jeremy Irons took part in one of these. Two months before Iwao was released, Amnesty International had delivered a petition containing more than 40,000 signatures collected worldwide to demand a retrial.

On 5 December 2013, the Japanese Ministry of Prosecutions decided to declassify 176 pieces of evidence from Hakamada’s trial, including the blood samples taken from the clothes allegedly worn by him when he committed the crime. At the request of his lawyer, Nishijima, the samples were subjected to DNA testing, which showed that the blood was not that of the condemned man. This was the key factor leading the judge to admit the twentieth appeal presented by Iwao’s defenders and to set him at liberty on 27 March 2014, concluding that there were reasons to believe that evidence had been fabricated in the original trial, and that to keep the 81-year old Hakamada in prison while awaiting retrial would have been ‘unbearably unjust.’

On the same day, Hideko visited the prison as she did every month to tell her brother the good news. What she did not expect was that he would be immediately released. When she went to say goodbye to him, she was told, “Don’t go. He’ll be back in a little while,” and a few minutes later Iwao reappeared in the visitors’ room clutching a bag in one hand. His first words were, “What they’re saying is all lies. All this that they’re letting me go is lies.” He could not believe that he had just been set free. Neither could Hideko. A few minutes later, Iwao Hakamada walked out of the Tokyo Detention House, now 78, accompanied by his 81 year-old sister and his team of lawyers. In the meantime, he had become the world’s longest serving death row prisoner –almost 48 years in which he had seen over 100 of his fellows executed, never knowing when it would be his turn to go. Perhaps because of this, what the cameras saw on that March morning was not a snapshot of jubilation but the portrait of a sick old man, weary and disoriented, wearing a vacant look, who shuffled past supported on his sister’s arm. Hakamada left the prison with a severe mental disorder, unable to understand what was happening around him or even to recognize his sister Hideko. In his first appearance before the press, he told the assembled journalists that he had himself abolished the death penalty in Japan as the ‘omnipotent God of the universe’. Experts concur that the cause of his illness is the institutional psychosis caused by the length and conditions of his confinement, despite the Japanese prison service’s protestations that it is merely a case of dementia, perhaps exacerbated by head trauma suffered during his career as a boxer.

Hideko took her brother to live with her at home so that she could go on looking after him. It was not easy. In the early months, he spent his day pacing around his room as if it were a cell, or around the house for hours on end without stopping. Eight hours each day. Believing himself still in prison, he would say, “I have to keep moving so as not to get ill.” He suffered from hallucinations. He slept badly. “Even now he can’t get up by himself, because he slept on a tatami on the floor in prison, and he doesn’t know how to get in and out of bed,” Hideko would explain two years later. By that time, Iwao had stopped pacing around and spent his time sitting in front of the television, getting up only to eat. He seemed calm, but he was still absent. His speech remained incoherent. “No, no! I have never been to prison, I have no recollection of any such thing. That stuff about how I was released is all just for show. I was actually in Hawaii all those years. I was in Hawaii.” It was only when talking about boxing that he seemed to understand and become more coherent.

If a retrial were ever to be held, it is highly likely that Iwao would be absolved, highlighting the grave deficiencies of the Japanese criminal justice system, which seems incapable of ensuring due process and continues to rely overwhelmingly on confessions obtained through torture. Iwao’s case also starkly revealed the inhumanity of the conditions under which death row prisoners are held and showed that the practice of withholding information about the timing of executions causes extreme mental distress, so much so, in fact, as to become an added punishment, amounting to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

On 16 January 2018, almost four years after Iwao was freed, one of the most pitiable meetings in the history of Japanese criminal justice took place in a Fukuoka hospital. Two octogenarians came face to face again after almost 50 years. Iwao Hakamada, suffering from a severe mental disorder caused by almost 48 years awaiting execution on death row, accompanied by his inseparable sister Hideko, paid a visit to Norimicho Kumamoto, one of the judges who had condemned him to death five decades earlier. The lives of both these old men had been torn apart by a death sentence that had never actually been carried out. Dying of cancer and suffering from late-stage Parkinson’s disease, Kumamoto had recently suffered another stroke and lay immobile in a hospital bed. It was he who had called Hakamada. He did not wish to die without begging his forgiveness face to face. With tears in his eyes, he was able only to say his name twice, “Iwao, Iwao…”.

Iwao arrives at Hamamatsu accompanied of his sister Hideko two months after his release. May 27, 2014. Photograph by Yumi Matsuda.
Iwao at his sister’s house in Hamamatsu 15 months after his release. June 2015.

My brother Iwao

My younger brother, Iwao, has been detained for 47 years and 7 months for a crime that he did not commit. On 27 March 2014, he was released following the court’s decision to reopen the case. However, since the prosecutors have filed an immediate appeal against the decision and the court proceedings have been suspended, my brother is still being treated as a death-row convict.

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the incident and my brother turned 80. I understand his feelings very well. He was falsely arrested for a crime that had nothing to do with him and has been treated as a death-row convict since then. While he was enduring the fear of being executed, I suppose, he started to create his own world to enclose his tormented mind by convincing himself that the trial was over and nothing has ever happened.

We were a group of six siblings. Three brothers and three sisters. He was the youngest. He has a son. At the time of the incident, my brother had to visit his parents’ home every Saturday to meet his son. On the day when the incident occurred, he happened to be in his room alone. So the police consistently kept an eye on him and followed after him even when he was visiting his parents’ home as he had no alibi.

After he was arrested, he has been questioned for a long time. Sometimes the investigators tortured him, not even letting him go to toilet. They placed a potty in the interrogation room. At the time, we did not even know the difference between civil suit and criminal suit so we asked our friends to help us find a lawyer.

When we were informed that he confessed his crime, I decided to go to the police station in Shimizu with my two brothers and the lawyer. The lawyer, who met him in person, told us that his face was swollen. The detective, who was listening to our conversation, suddenly became impatient and said “Yeah, we took him to consult a doctor”. I was worried about my brother.

During the police’s investigation of the incident, we had no way but to get information from television news. I was completely absorbed in watching television news. In the news, my brother was labelled as ‘an ex-boxer who has gone to the dogs’. They described my brother as if he were a monster. We had to stay in our house and it was impossible for us to go outside. People around us all thought that he was the perpetrator. Every time when news reports said that “The suspect denied his involvement,” we felt devastated.

My mother attended most of the court proceedings of the first trial. Not much later, my mother started to get sick and eventually she became a bedridden old woman. When we heard that my brother confessed to the crime, we were having an early dinner and my mother murmured that we have to live miserably from now on. Soon after, in November 1968, my mother died of stomach cancer at the age of 68, followed by my father’s death in April 1969.

“Happy years in the village of Hamakita.”
From left to right; Hakamada’s older sister and her husband, his brother (squatting), Hideko and Iwao. Atami, around 1946.

After my mother’s death, I took after my mother and I started to send two sets of a seven-page letter almost every day, like a diary. I told my brother to contact me when he needed something. Until November 1991, I was receiving letters from my brother. But he stopped responding to my letters since then. When I went to the detention center to meet him, I ask him why he was not writing letters to me anymore. I am not sure whether guards told him not to write or not but, he said it better not to write anymore. I was wondering if that was a sign of him being mentally unstable. He then started to writing something that didn’t make sense.

After he was transferred from Shizuoka detention center to Tokyo detention center where they have a scaffold, I started to visit him with two of my brothers. After his sentence was confirmed in the supreme court, my brother was transferred to a cell, which is for death-row convicts. After the supreme court’s confirmation, he became extremely quiet and, for the first time, he whined about the condition of his detention, saying that “I’m in a terrible place. I cannot even open the lock from inside”. When I went to visit him about six months later, my brother rushed into the visiting room and said, “There was an execution yesterday. He was in the cell right next to mine. He said “take care”. Everyone was shocked”. I was absentmindedly listening to his words. I suppose it was indeed a great shock to him.

A little while later, he started saying that there are some death-row convicts who were releasing electromagnetic waves, which caused itch and pain to him. I replied “there’s even an ‘E-bath’, maybe it’s good to you”. He was also saying that “my food contains poison” or something like “I will get killed by poisoning”.

Then he started to reject my visit requests. He was saying that “I have no sister” and “I have no brother”, however, I was visiting him every month. I hoped that maybe he would change his mind.

In April 2001, the eldest brother died, followed by the second eldest brother’s death in March 2009.

I have always tried as hard as I can for nearly 48 years to prove my brother’s innocence. For 48 years, there was no holiday, no new year’s celebration, no festivals to me until my brother was released. I felt relieved when the DNA testing proved that he was not the perpetrator. Until now, I have lived my life in the strong belief that my brother is indeed innocent.

It’s been two years since I started to live with my beloved brother. It’s been 50 years since the incident occurred, but both of us cannot take our time back.

My brother is still having an emotional wall, but I think he is trying his best to live and his heart is filled with screams for innocence. Thank you very much for listening.

Hideko Hakamada

Letter read at the 6th World Congress Against the Death Penalty held in Oslo in June 2016.

2 February 1967

“Dear mother, it is said that life is about falling down seven times but getting up the eighth time. It is said that he who laughs last is the victor. Hence, i am certain that the time will come when i will once again be able to laugh and talk with you all as before.”

26 January 1973

“I am innocent. I am condemned to death for a crime I did not commit. Fighting the depression permeating through my entire body. I must go on living.

There are times when the boundless fear towards my unforeseen execution makes my heart go cold beyond comparison. There are also times when I tremble like a leaf, as if being attacked by the cold winds of winter. The are horrible moments when I can not even trust my own five senses. But I shall win today. I don´t think that my resolve and actions with regard to my life are as equally reckless as taking an egg and hurling it at a stone.”

Iwao Hakamada

Letters from prison to his mother and his brother.
Boxing gloves at the home of Iwao and Hideko Hakamada. A gift from the former world featherweight champion, the Japanese fighter Shinsuke Yamanaka. Hamamatsu. June 2015.

2 February 1989

“Hey, Mr. Carter! Isn’t it great that you have been cleared? Congratulations! I bet you didn’t forget your intense passion for boxing during your long term of imprisonment!”

“You and I both have maintained a similar passion for boxing, and there is no doubt that your fighting spirit was the splendid driving force that proved your innocence.

I, too, will receive power from the circle of people who are committed to justice, and believing in the love and decisive judgment of the Japanese people (who are not inferior to the American people), I will try my hardest to continue after you. From the bottom of my heart I humbly request that hereafter, through the good will that comes from me being in circumstances much like your own, you will support our struggle here in Japan to prove my innocence.”

Iwao Hakamada

Letter written in 1989 to Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, the American boxer who was convicted of triple murder in 1966 and was imprisoned for 20 years before being exonerated by a federal judge in 1985.