Japan, one of the few industrialised democracies to still maintain the death penalty, for the first time today, opened up its secrecy-shrouded death chambers for the media.
This is a month after Justice Minister Keiko Chiba, an opponent of capital punishment, announced a review of the practice after she witnessed the first executions since her centre-left government took power almost a year ago. It is at the minister's urging, that Japanese media were allowed access inside the glass-walled execution room in the Tokyo Detention House, where convicts, usually convicted of manslaughter, are put to death by hanging.
A red square with a cross on the white floor marks the spot in the windowless room where convicts stand with the noose around their neck, before a trap-door opens below them and they plunge to their deaths. The hanging mechanism is triggered by one of three wall-mounted push buttons in an adjacent room, pressed simultaneously by three officers, although none of them is told which button is the live one that will cause the prisoner's death, in order to prevent the officers from suffering guilt pangs.
In an ante-room, a golden Buddha statue is available for final prayers before the handcuffed convicts are blindfolded and led to their deaths, according to footage by public broadcaster NHK and other TV stations.
Japan is the only other democracy that allows capital punishment, a practice that has earned Tokyo repeated protests from European governments and human rights groups.
Japan has faced a unique criticism for only informing death row prisoners of their impending execution at the last minute, and for only telling their families afterwards.
Amnesty International last year labelled death row conditions in Japan "cruel, inhuman and degrading", blaming the mental strain for tipping over many long-term convicts into insanity. "Each day could be their last and the arrival of a prison officer with a death warrant would signal their execution within hours," the report said. "Some live like this year after year, sometimes for decades."
The London-based rights group said it also found that prisoners on death row were not allowed to talk to one another, and that contact with relatives, lawyers and others could be restricted to as little as five minutes at a time.