One year since Hakamada’s release, how much has really changed for Japan’s death row inmates?

Written by Hiroka Shoji, East Asia researcher.

Exactly one year ago today, 78-year-old Hakamada Iwao walked out of the Tokyo Detention Centre after a District Court in Japan granted him a temporary release and retrial. Hakamada – the world’s longest serving death row prisoner — had spent more than half his life on Japan’s death row. His conviction had been based on a “confession” he made under repeated torture, and with evidence that the court ruled could have been fabricated.

Yet, despite the fact that this high-profile case shook people’s confidence in Japan’s prison and justice systems, one year on, little has changed. Japan’s criminal justice system is still deeply flawed and conditions on death row remain inhumane.

Solitary confinement

When Hakamada emerged from detention into the glare of the media spotlight on 27 March last year, what news cameras captured was not an image of jubilation, but of a slightly stooped elderly man wearing a blank expression. After more than 45 years confined alone in a 5 square metre cell, Hakamada left prison mentally ill. His speech makes little sense and he often withdraws into himself. At other times, he suddenly flies into a temper.

Hakamada began showing signs of disturbed thinking and behaviour back in 1980, when the Supreme Court confirmed his death sentence. His lawyer reported that it was difficult to communicate with him, which made meetings with him ineffective. Conversations with his sister, Hideko, and letters he wrote also showed disordered thinking.

After more than 45 years confined alone… Hakamada left prison mentally ill.

Hiroka Shoji

In Japan, death row prisoners are kept secluded from the outside world, which in addition to solitary confinement also means little contact with family members. Hakamada lived under such conditions for not just years, but decades.

Mental health ignored

Hakamada is not the only inmate to have become mentally ill while on death row. Matsumoto Kenji, facing execution since 1993, also saw his mental health slip while detained. This was on top of an intellectual disability that he was born with.

Like Hakamada, Matsumoto began showing signs of irrational thought following detention. In 2008, a supporter said he received a letter from Matsumoto in which he claimed to have received prize money from the Japanese Prime Minister and the US President, events that had not taken place. Because of his mental disability, his lawyers said that he is unable to understand and participate in the legal proceedings in his case, nor can he help them prepare appeals in his defence.

International law and standards clearly state that the death penalty should not be used on people with mental or intellectual disabilities. Yet, Japan has no effective safeguards to stop this from happening, so that prisoners like Matsumoto with pre-existing intellectual disabilities are still condemned to death. And the prison conditions that have caused so much damage to Hakamada and Matsumoto’s mental health remain unchanged.

International law and standards clearly state that the death penalty should not be used on people with mental or intellectual disabilities.

Hiroka Shoji

Need for change

In a public statement following his release, Hakamada said: “It is absolutely unacceptable for a nation state to kill its people.”

His case raises potent questions. For example, can locking someone up in a cramped cell, alone for decades ever be justified? Does the Japanese criminal justice system as it stands guarantee fair trials and provide enough safeguards against forced confessions? And if the risk of executing the innocent is always present, will there ever be enough safeguards? Experience from the great majority of countries in the world shows that the answer is no.

In the past year, Hakamada has shown signs of improvement. Now living in Shizuoka, Japan, with his sister, Hideko, he has become more open to having conversations with her. Occasionally, a smile even breaks through.

It is absolutely unacceptable for a nation state to kill its people.

Hakamada Iwao

Hakamada’s case still sits with the high court pending a ruling on a retrial, but for now, he is back home. Reforms to the justice system and improvements in conditions on death row are needed to be sure, but the ultimate change must be an end to the death penalty. My hope is that reform in Japan will not come too late for Matsumoto and others like him still on death row.

Look out for Amnesty’s 2014 figures on the death penalty on 1 April. Find out more about Amnesty’s work on the death penalty.