Shibata Yukinori (Tokyo, Jesuit Social Center)         
The Life Painting Exhibition 2001 Campaign that started on the occasion of Sister Helen Prejean's conference at St. Ignatius Church in January of this year met its climax at the end of June with a series of events. I participated in all of them and would like to report briefly my views.


The Life Exhibition at the Catholic Center of Sophia University
(27 June to 4 July)

70 paintings of prisoners sentenced to death were exhibited. Prisoners are only allowed to use black and red ball pens, but, in spite of that, some drew extraordinary miniature line drawings. The drawing paper is also limited by the authorities, but some drew paintings bigger than one square meter making use of tens of sheets of paper. The subjects are quite diverse, from religious themes, like Christ, Our Lady or Buddhist themes to daily matters, like their solitary cells, food or the scenery. Common to all paintings is the strange power emanating from the drawings. From where is that power coming?

Prisoners sentenced to death live lonely and empty lives. As soon as death sentence is given, letters and visits are extremely limited in order to keep prisoners' feelings free from outside influences. Again, even when the sentence has been given they are considered unconvicted prisoners till their execution takes place and, as a result, they are not allowed to earn money by work. The most frightful of all is that, since they are not told of their execution time, they are exposed to fighting daily against the fear of imminent death. In this way, more than words, the paintings are the most eloquent means to express the cruelty they have to face every day in situations difficult to imagine.

I have never met a prisoner sentenced to death and I am not sure whether I will meet any. Nevertheless, while they continue painting and once I have seen their drawings there is no way for me to forget them.



The Concert of Shintani Noriko at the Holy Infant Jesus Hall
(28 June)

Shintani Noriko made her concert debut in 1969. A year before, Nagayama Norio had committed a series of killings. Then, in 1997 Nagayama's lawyer asked Ms. Shintani to become his guarantor just at the time when he was executed. Out of such a strange relationship Ms. Shintani continues to sing about Mr. Nagayama and about death penalty.

All songs of Ms. Shintani, not only the ones on death penalty, bear a strong message. Her debut song "Francine" narrates the suicide by fire of a lady, protesting against the Vietnam American war and the civil war in Nigeria. The song, "It appeared once in the Newspapers", was written by a disabled woman who was inspired by an incident where some old parents killed their handicapped child. The one called, "Beirut 1982", narrates the lives of children during the Gulf War. The song, "September 3, 1969", recounts a summary of the prisoner of death sentence, Nagayama Norio. Finally, "The Condor on the Wing" tells about the last publication of Mr. Nagayama where he tried to offer the royalties of his book to support poor children in Peru.

The concert of Ms. Shintani provoked in me the following feelings: "The power of love, not of hate, makes people to act. Anybody can become a new person as a result of the power of love". Sister Helen Prejean offered the same message. The 150 participants to the concert of Ms. Shintani seemed to have been encouraged by the strong messages of her songs.




Questioning the System of Death Penalty: Inter-religious Prayer Meeting at Kojimachi (St. Ignatius) Catholic Church,
June 29.

A prayer meeting organized by Buddhists and Christians, with the participation of about 180 persons, started solemnly at the sound of a Japanese flute. A painting drawn by a prisoner sentenced to death was displayed at the foot of the altar surrounded by 25 lighted cup candles. Two witnesses who had just come back from an international conference in Europe against death penalty stood up in front of the audience to present their testimonies against death penalty. One of them was Mr. Menda Sakae who, after bearing for years a death sentence, was acquitted free of charge. The other one was Mr. Harada Masaharu whose younger brother was assassinated, but, in spite of that, he calmly testified that executions are no real solutions, they only help to reproduce more hate. The program continued with Buddhist meditation, religious songs, Bible readings, common prayers and a public declaration of resolve. I felt that the thinking of the abolition of the system of death penalty permeated the hearts of all present.

The voice of public opinion claims loudly: "Let's answer with severity to brutal crimes" or "Executions are the only way to clear up the revenge of the victims". Such unconstrained loud voice stamples drown not only the privacy of the criminals, but also the victims' and their families. The prayer meeting had an opposite meaning. It quietly provided in silence a strong determination for compassion.


 



Symposium: Reflecting on Life and Death. A Call to Ban Death Penalty. (30 June, Sophia University)

Four panelists began presenting the main issues. Mr. Atsumi Toyo, a jurist professor, explained the legal meaning of the system of death penalty and the international movement for the abolition of the system. Mr. Harada Masaharu, a relative of a victim assassinated, explained the process how he came to the conclusion of preserving the life of criminals to have them compensate for their crimes while they are alive. The third speaker, Kaga Motohiko, a psychiatrist doctor, spoke out of his experiences meeting with many prisoners sentenced to death and explained the cruel psychological traumas of such prisoners. A picture producer Ms. Sakagami Kaori reported on the widening American movement of mutual aid among the victims and their families, and the prevention of crime and rehabilitation through community building. An audience of 250 persons listened earnestly to the sharp remarks of the panel speakers.

The second part of the discussion gave rise to a heated debate. On one hand, Mr. Atsumi stressed that if the community displayed the power for rehabilitation and the prevention of crime, then death penalty collapses naturally. But, Mr. Kaga and Ms. Sakagami proposed a different approach: "Death penalty is immoral. The abolition of death penalty is the starting point for communities to oppose, efficaciously, crime". I thought that, nevertheless, they basically agreed on the recognition that, in order to deter crime, the revitalization of communities is more important than legal power and punishment. This reminded me again of the messages of Ms. Shintani and Sister Helen: "Love, not death punishment, heals and changes human persons."


In this way, the series of events regarding death penalty system finished in Tokyo. To our surprise, many people came together to reflect and pray on the system of death punishment. Nevertheless, public opinion strongly demands severe punishment (death) for cruel crimes. It is at this very time that we have to calmly question the system of death penalty: "What do we preserve and what do we lose by executing criminals"?

In the second half of the year the life painting exhibitions will be organized in different places. Next spring, Sister Prejean will come to Japan again to perform a national campaign. Summer would be an appropriate time to slowly reflect on the death penalty system and on the meaning of life.




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