Shibata Yukinori (Jesuit Social Center, Tokyo)
"The last Survey of Japanese public opinion shows that over 80% of the Japanese approve death penalty. Nevertheless, if proper information on death penalty would be given and if people would try to reflect on the realities surrounding executions, Japanese will most certainly select life and reject death penalty" (Sr. Helen Prejean)

"In order to build peace, societies kill people in war. Through death punishment safe societies without crimes are built. What kind of safety is that? Is it possible to build a peace that can only be obtained by killing people? Is it not love, attitudes to try to become like the other what really matters to build a peaceful society?" (Toshi Kazama)

The Japanese Religious Community Network "Stop Death Penalty" of which Tokyo Social Center is a member, together with other groups, invited American Sister Helen Prejean from 21 May to 1 June, and organized a national campaign "Together for Life" 2005. This is the fourth visit of Sr. Helen to Japan. The campaign consisted of a "speaking tour" from Kumamoto to Tokyo in more than 11 different halls. The audiences varied from about 60 people to over 200 and wherever she went her rich experiences and deep insights touched the hearts of the people in the audience.

Almost during the same period, the Japanese cameraman, Mr. Toshi Kazama living in the United States of America came back to Japan to speak and exhibit in several cities photos he had been taking of young people on death row in the USA, for 9 years.

Let me give a brief report here of three public gatherings of the national campaign I attended in Kobe and Tokyo.

The Religious Community Network "Stop Death Penalty" organized the gathering at Kobe as its 5th national seminar. Catholic Kobe Central Church was the host of the gathering that took place in Kobe for the first time. More than 160 persons participated. Mr. Kazama started his lecture with a slide show. The slides dealt with youth sentenced to death and their families, the prison, the execution chamber and the tombs of the executed. He also showed photos of the sites of crimes, of relatives of the victims and the survivors. Thanks to him we could get an idea of the issues surrounding death penalty. Many were shocked at the view of the slides of the execution chamber.

To me the message of Mr. Kazama meant, "Death penalty is a problem of each person's life. Pro and con theories lead nowhere. People sentenced to death and their families, victims' relatives and survivors, the executioners, in fact, all are thrown into suffering. Try to place yourself into other people's position and do not think this issue has nothing to do with you.

Sr. Helen spoke next. The key word of her speech was, "journey of souls." She met once a death row prisoner and became her spiritual adviser, accompanying him to his execution.
According to her, this painful experience provoked a change in the prisoner, as well as in herself. This provided her opportunities to meet with the relatives of the victim and with the family of the criminal executed and to learn to be sympathetic with the suffering of both. She continued visiting them realizing their demands for healing. In this way, Sr. Helen has attended the execution of 6 prisoners on their death row.

Sr. Helen's journey, based on amazing true faith and love, is a spiritual journey, cruel beyond all imagination that has already produced its fruit. The American association "Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation (MVFR)" received its inspiration from Sr. Helen's activities since 1993, and under the name of "Journey of Hope" tries to bring reconciliation and healing to all families involved organizing together public gatherings. Their public attitude to confront sincerely a sadness that people concerned try to forget is, certainly, something to be praised. Sr. Helen Prejean spoke with amazing kindness and clarity on the fact that, only when people dialogue with each other can be healed and transform themselves into new beings.


During the present campaign, Sr. Helen stressed the issue of "innocent prisoners." On 28 May, at the public hall of Japan's Lawyers National Association she introduced her new publication, "The Death of Innocents" that deals with the executions of prisoners on death row she assisted. Her conference dealt mainly with the executions of two prisoners she believed were clearly innocent and stressed the horror of false charges against innocent people.

In the USA, as a result of DNA new investigations done at the beginning of the 90s, several cases of wrong sentences given were exposed. That provided an occasion to start a program called, "Innocent Project", that was implemented with the help of university students from all over the United States. One of the results was that many prisoners with a death sentence were found to be innocent.
During a period of 30 years, starting from 1973, about one thousand prisoners were executed in the USA, but it was found that 119 of them had been innocent of the criminal charges given. Most of those found innocent were executed during the 90s. Some of those released from jail spoke publicly about their stories and, as a result, public support for death penalty fell from a high 80% to 64%.
The situation of Illinois is a typical case. There, 13 prisoners on death row were found innocent and one of them that had been condemned to death for 17 years was declared innocent just 48 hours before execution. In view of such dramatic situation, George Ryan, the governor of Illinois declared a moratorium for executions in January 2000 and almost 4 years later, in November 2003, set free 4 prisoners on death row and gave clemency to the 167 prisoners left with a death sentence.

As for Japan, 4 persons that had received a death sentence were consecutively released, from 1983 to 1989. But, no matter the demands to review their trials, by June 2004, 37 prisoners on death row, out of 57 condemned to death, were all refused court reviews. In April 2005, only the case of the poisoned wine at Nabari was approved for court review. It had taken 19 years since the last court review of a case. The crime took place 44 years ago and 36 years have passed since the death sentence was given. The claimant, Mr. Okunishi, is 79 years old now.

Furukawa Ryuji's family of the Seimeizan Schweitzer Temple that has been supporting the claim of Fukuoka's criminal case, as a false charge, since it happened in 1947, is a key member of the Network "Stop Death Penalty" and the main organizer of the actual national campaign. The family has applied three times for a court review, but the demand has been always dismissed. Mr. Nishi, condemned as the principal criminal, was executed in 1975 and, his accomplice Mr. Ishii was given life imprisonment on the same day, receiving provisional release in 1989. Three persons, included Mr. Ishii, have made the claim that the executed Mr. Nishi was innocent and on 23 May 2005 applied for the fourth time to have a court review.
Last May 29 a public gathering was organized to support the movement to review in court the criminal case of Fukuoka. Among the invited guests, Sr. Prejean who has been in contact with the Furukawa family since 7 years ago and is a supporter of their case, Mr. Kazama, Doi Takako, former Speaker of the House of Representatives and active supporter since its beginning were present. Mr. Ishii, one of the claimants, already 90 years old was also present at the gathering. The guests praised the generous dedication of the Furukawa's family and of all the supporters and made appeals to review the trial and rectify its legal mistakes, on the belief that it is our mission to build a society that recognizes the importance of life.


Criticism and slander often occur when people get involved in the issues of death penalty. You often hear criticisms like, "are the human rights of criminals more important than those of the victims?" or "have you ever thought of the suffering of the victim's family?" "It is impossible to think that death penalty could be erased at a time when so many horrible crimes are happening". If the support of people innocent of the charges imposed upon them receives such harsh treatment, how much cruel treatment would be waiting for those supporters of ending death penalty and of criminals on death row. I venture to say that we appeal to stop death penalty not to become monsters of cruelty.

At the Symposium held by Japan's Lawyers Association on last May 28, Dr. Takahashi Tetsuya quoted a Jewish professor that supported the execution of a Nazi top responsible leader of the Jews' holocaust: "such Nazi leader committed evil that cannot be allowed to human beings, like to make decisions on who is going to be executed and who could be kept alive. There should be no surprise if others deny him the right to exist." In other words, this Jewish professor, out of a hate of the inhuman attitudes of the Nazi to try to decide on death or life of other people, fell himself into the same trap of making decisions on who is to keep alive and who should be executed. We cannot deny others the right to life, no matter how cruel they could be. If we stress the right to kill we end losing our humanity. In fact, the survivors of the victims of MVFR made the same appeal.

Of course, we also hate crimes and cannot accept them. Certainly it is more comfortable to follow the currents of public opinion, without doing anything to stop death penalty. Nevertheless, the attitude to stop for a while to reflect on the issue is the teaching of Christ that we Christians follow as well as the teaching of Buddha for Buddhists. All religions preach repentance and unlimited forgiveness, but it is not easy to understand the true meaning of that. Maybe only the victims' survivors, the criminals that are suffering at the bottom of their existence and their families are the only ones able to understand such values. It seems to me that Sr. Prejean, Mr. Kazama and Furukawa's family continue a Spiritual Journey meeting with those who are involved in activities with issues of death penalty.

I am not saying that everybody should, immediately, support the eradication of death penalty. But, I would like to invite people to make a stop and to join us to leave on a spiritual journey and reflect together on the issues of death penalty. I wish many could join us to view from that dimension a "landscape of life."
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