Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Ex-prison worker in Japan who witnessed execution speaks of shocking experience

A cross, candles, the Bible and other items are seen lined up on the altar in a chaplain room at the Tokyo Detention House in the capital's Katsushika Ward on Oct. 4, 2012. (Mainichi/Osamu Sukagawa)

TOKYO -- The death penalty was carried out in Japan for the first time in two years in December 2021, drawing strong criticism from the international community as capital punishment has been on the decline worldwide.

    Hyogo Bar Association lawyer Yoshikuni Noguchi, who served as the head of the defense counsel for the Kobe child murders incident in 1997, once witnessed an execution as a prison officer. His testimony is valuable as little information is disclosed to the public on the situation surrounding the death penalty in Japan.

    Lawyer Yoshikuni Noguchi, a former prison worker who witnessed an execution, is seen on Jan. 14, 2022. (Mainichi/Takayasu Ogura)

    After graduating from the University of Tokyo in 1970, Noguchi became a prison officer at the Tokyo Detention House. At the end of the following year, he was assigned to be in charge of an inmate who had just been sentenced to capital punishment.

    At that time, the head of the detention house notified convicts about when they will be executed on the morning before the very day. As soon as the announcement was made, the death-row inmate would be transferred to a special room and constantly monitored by security personnel. The notification would also be communicated to the inmate's family, and in Noguchi's case, the inmate's wife and uncle came to visit. Noguchi witnessed their meeting with a chief warden on duty.

    The wife, who sat across from the inmate in the visiting room, just held her husband's hand and cried. The inmate mentioned his experience of giving Buddhist sutras in prison.

    A "single room" of the same type as those used by death-row inmates is seen at the Tokyo Detention House in the capital's Katsushika Ward on Oct. 4, 2012. (Mainichi/Osamu Sukagawa)

    "I know I'm going to die tomorrow, and I feel calm now. I'm aware of my sins and it's only natural to take responsibility for it, so please don't be sad," he said. The inmate added, "Everyone will die someday. I just have to go before you." He repeatedly told his family not to be sad.

    During the 30-minute visit, the wife did not speak once. When the inmate was about to leave the room, his wife forced out the words: "Our child's face is gradually becoming like you."

    Noguchi told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I will never forget how his wife looked. To be honest, I felt sorry for them. But I couldn't do anything about it. The chief warden on duty who was next to me also looked teary-eyed."

    The following morning, a security officer in charge would take the death-row inmate to the building where the execution chamber is located. Noguchi accompanied the man to the room, in which the detention house director and other senior officials were seen lined up. The inmate greeted the director and said, "Thank you for helping me for such a long time." When asked if he had anything left to say, the inmate replied, "Is it okay to make one request?" and asked for a handshake with the executives who took care of him. Senior staff members extended their hands in turns.

    A guidance room is seen at the Tokyo Detention House in the capital's Katsushika Ward on Aug. 27, 2010. (Pool photo)

    The inmate was then blindfolded and handcuffed with his hands behind his back. The curtain as a partition in the room quickly opens. The apparatus for carrying out a death sentence by hanging appeared in the middle of the room.

    The security officer in charge made the inmate stand in the middle of a square mark, and put a thick rope around his neck. There was a room separated by glass on the right, and three prison workers were line up. One of them was Noguchi's subordinate. Each was standing in front of a lever.

    When a senior official gave the signal, all three staff pulled their levers at the same time. The floorboard beneath the inmate opened with a rattling noise, through which the man's body fell and disappeared out of sight. The rope swayed back and forth. Noguchi continued to grab the rope with the security officer so it would stop shaking.

    Looking down from the wide gap in the floor, Noguchi saw a doctor stripping off the inmate's clothes and placing a stethoscope on his chest, which was moving for a while. "I got mixed feelings, thinking he could still be saved. A doctor, who should be helping other people, is listening to the heartbeat of someone getting killed. I thought how difficult a task it was for the doctor," he said. The medic confirmed the man's death, and his lifeless body was wiped clean afterwards.

    The "front room" of the execution chamber is seen in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward on Aug. 27, 2010. (Pool photo)

    Perhaps due to the shock of witnessing the execution, people around Noguchi pointed out how he looked pale. "Maybe I was about to faint. Even if I knew it was my job, the feeling of killing a person remained inside of me. I felt it vividly." Noguchi resigned as a ministry of justice official after about four years in the role, and became a lawyer in 1980.

    Currently, inmates are only notified about when they will be executed on the very day. Their family and lawyers are notified only after the execution. It is said that the reason the announcement is currently made on the day of the execution is because a death-row inmate at the now Fukuoka Detention House killed himself before his execution by cutting his right wrist with a razor he secretly had in October 1975. The Ministry of Justice has explained in the Diet and elsewhere that "advance notices can disturb the emotional stability of those on death row."

    In Osaka, two death-row inmates have filed a lawsuit against the government for damages, saying that making the announcement only on the day of the execution is a violation of human rights.

    X-ray equipment is seen in the medical room at the Tokyo Detention House in the capital's Katsushika Ward on Oct. 4, 2012. (Mainichi/Osamu Sukagawa)

    When Noguchi was a prison worker, death-row inmates were often seen playing together out on the field, and some even took care of small birds inside their rooms. Currently, such inmates have extremely low chances of receiving visitors, and are restricted from interacting with each other or raising pets.

    Noguchi says he believes inmates should spend a cultural and humanly life until they are executed, and warns people to avoid thinking: "As they have committed a serious crime, what's wrong with violating their human rights?"

    (Japanese original by Takayasu Ogura, Editorial Writer)

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media