The team of Iwao defense lawyers. From left to right: Yoshiyuki Todate, Katsuhiko Nishijima and Osamu Murasaki. Tokyo, 2010.
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.