Jesuit Social Center staff
JCCJP Subcommittee “Calling for Abolishing the Death Penalty”
The 40th Japan Catholic National Meeting for Justice & Peace was held in Nagoya for 2 days, November 23-24, with the main theme: “Our choice and my determination based on today’s demand to live together on this earth, our common family home.”
On the first day, a plenary session was held on “distorted economic disparities in this world.” On the second day, we divided into 16 workshops according to each one’s special interest.
Our subcommittee 7 of the Japan Catholic Council for Justice & Peace (JCCJP), “Calling for abolishing the death penalty,” hosted a special symposium with the theme: “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Four Christian speakers were invited to give talks stemming from interactions with death row inmates. Co-sponsored by the Committee for Justice & Peace of the Anglican Episcopal Church in Japan, all the participants and speakers had a meaningful ecumenical experience. More people than expected gathered and filled the St. Paul Hall of the Catholic Zendana Church. Interest was sparked by the news last July of the mass death penalties for 13 prisoners in Aum Shinrikyo-related cases, as well as by the revision following soon after on article 2267 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church concerning the death penalty.
Being an MC, I began by talking briefly about the present situation of 112 death row inmates in Japan (including Mr. Hakamada at that time). Their treatment in prison regarding meeting and interchange with others is strictly regulated, in addition to restrictions on meals, sleep, bathing, and exercise in daily life. Given this situation, death row inmates can do nothing but pass lonely hours each day until suddenly being informed of their execution.
Sr. Harada Michiko, S.V., has been in touch with 44 death row inmates for nearly 30 years. She said that 11 of them had already been executed and 6 had died of illness in prison, which is even said to be a “welcome death” for them. And, among the 44 death row inmates, 5 of them were exonerated for life at a later trial, and one was successfully rehabilitated into society. During her many years of interacting with death row inmates, some have been baptized, and she said she herself has learned a lot as a religious from those who were not yet baptized but had deep faith. She also said she had been taught how to meditate by death row inmate of Aum Shinrikyo.
As for the timing of the death penalty, no information is given to the family and supporters of the condemned, nor even to the death row inmates themselves, until the very morning of that day. From her many sad experiences due to the sudden death of death row inmates she had known, Sr. Harada related many stories of her own. One was about a woman believer who wished to go to heaven soon due to mental sickness caused by her long severe imprisonment and was executed on Good Friday. A sick old death row inmate was soon executed after Sister had sent him warm bed sheets. In another case, she received a last letter written from a death row inmate two days before his execution. She showed her deep concern also for the suffering of prison officers engaged in carrying out the death penalty and claimed that it should never be a human job to push the button for execution.
For Ms. Ushijima Atsuko, who moved in 2007 to St. Mark Church of the Anglican Episcopal Church in Japan from the United Church of Christ in Japan, the death row inmate with whom she was in contact was an old member of St. Mark Church even before she arrived and was her senior in the Christian faith. He was, sadly, brought up in a miserable home environment and committed a crime in his boyhood. But now he continues to remit money, earned by his work in prison, not only to his victim but also to social welfare groups supporting abused or poor children.
Ms. Ushijima said that he surely committed a serious crime in the past, but now in his 40s he has marvelous faith and lives on daily prayer and works for others. She said that, more than any encouragement she has given him, she has learned much from him. We who are not God can see only one side. She urged us over and over to believe that a person can change and to face the person in front of us with sincerity.
According to Ms. Ikezumi Kei, from St. Stephen Church of the Anglican Episcopal Church in Nagoya, priests of the Central Area in the Anglican Episcopal Church have served for many years as prison chaplains at Nagoya Detention House. Thanks to visits to prisoners, some death row inmates have wished to be baptized and confirmed, having been moved by the personality of the priests while they studied the Bible. As a result, members of the faithful, along with their prison chaplains, have begun to support such death row inmates not only as individuals but as a church. They learned about the issue of the death penalty and thus have acquired positive concern for death row inmates.
Ms. Ikezumi said: “Unfortunately, five members of our church have lost their lives through the death penalty so far, but as for me, the haggard face of one of our priests engaging for the first time with a death row inmate till the end is still fresh in my memory. I prayed desperately together with the priest the whole day till the next morning.” Since Ms. Ikezumi has had many opportunities to interact not only with death row inmates but also with their family and prison officers, she was able to listen to the thoughts of each one regarding the death penalty. It is a fact that some, among the bereaved family do not desire execution.
Ms. Ikezumi introduced one death row inmate’s last will, written before his execution: “Please see to it that my execution is the last.” Far from not being able to make his death penalty the last, Ms. Ikezumi grieved over the lack of awareness among Japanese people, who continue to take part in such a form of murder by a nation that accepts capital punishment. She suspected that the prime root cause of crime was society’s tendency to downplay life itself, and emphasized that it is necessary for us as Christians to bring about change in such a society.
Ms. Asano Machiko, a member of Shiga Christ Church of the Presbyterian Church in Japan, once read an article written by a death row inmate in a Christian magazine entitled “The Gospel for the Millions”. She wrote a letter to the death row inmate not only because she was deeply impressed by him but even more so because of the love of God which had been shown to him. Unfortunately, he had already been executed, but she was able to start engaging with another death row inmate, thanks to that first encounter.
She visited the death row inmate who is now her exchange partner 20 years ago for the first time. “He calls me ‘Mom’ now, but it took a long time to arrive at our present mutual relationship. There were many times of psychological conflict that made me feel like not continuing to visit him. However, each time I was encouraged by divine guidance and started visiting him again. Though I had many hard and painful times, I learned that he could change through my interacting with him, and I myself have also received the grace of being more familiar with Jesus.”
Basically Ms. Asano had formerly been totally unconcerned about social problems but came to see various problems through interchange with death row inmates. Many people who think they have no sin say that a murderer deserves to be executed. Such people are totally uninterested in the death penalty. All of us may lack awareness of our own sins before the Lord. Ms. Asano shared her experience with us about the gloomy looks of the bereaved who are not healed by the offender’s death penalty, and the mental pains burdening prison officers who carry out the death penalty as their duty.
At the end of our symposium appeals were made from the Muginokai group (Rehabilitation support for detainees network) and the group for saving the innocent condemned victim, Mr. Hakamada Iwao. The participants were deeply touched by what a former prisoner said of his unique experience during his life serving a total prison sentence of 30 years for four imprisonments. He said that he felt totally abandoned in prison and, when he had almost lost hope, he was saved and felt deeply moved with joy by a letter written to him from a Muginokai group. He noted that he met Christ in prison and that, since being released, he now works eagerly in church activities and in the Muginokai.
Of course, our eagerness and what sufferings we experience with our new activities may demand enormous effort. However, we reflected that we learned much from our sessions, realizing how important it is to practice love as Christians by visiting condemned criminals according to our theme “what you did for one of the least of these my brothers.” (Matthew 25:36)
Being so impressed by this symposium, I actually visited a death row inmate at Osaka Detention House one month later, on December 25. In fact, it was my first experience of visiting a death row inmate, but it turned out to be a tremendous Christmas gift to be able to meet him and our Lord there on Christmas Day.
But after only a few days, cold water was thrown on that joy by the extremely cruel execution of two death row inmates in Osaka Detention House. I spent my Christmas season grieved by this issue of the death penalty and reflecting deeply on its unreasonableness here in Japan.