TOKYO — Japan's justice minister, a foe of capital punishment, announced a review of the death penalty Wednesday after witnessing the first executions since her centre-left government took power last year.
The two male convicts hanged were Kazuo Shinozawa, 59, who killed six people by setting fire to a jewellery store, and Hidenori Ogata, 33, convicted of killing a man and a woman and seriously injuring two others.
Keiko Chiba, the first justice minister to personally watch a government execution, carried out at the Tokyo Detention House, afterwards told media she wanted a ministry study group to review the practice.
"I confirmed the executions with my own eyes," said Chiba. "It made me again think deeply about the death penalty, and I once again strongly felt that there is a need for a fundamental discussion about the death penalty."
She also said she would open up death chambers to the media for the first time -- though not on execution dates -- to expose to public scrutiny the mechanics of a process that has long been shrouded in secrecy.
Japan is the only industrialised democracy, apart from the United States, to carry out capital punishment -- usually for multiple homicides.
More than 85 percent of the public support the death penalty, according to a Cabinet survey carried out in February.
Japan has often been criticised internationally for its use of the death penalty, and the fact that death row prisoners and their families are not told about the execution date in advance.
The country last executed prisoners exactly a year earlier, when the conservative Liberal Democratic Party still ruled the country, putting to death three inmates including one Chinese national, also for multiple murder.
When the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan took power last September, ending more than half a century of conservative rule, it said it favoured public discussion on the death penalty.
The new government also sent a signal by appointing Chiba -- then a member of the Japan Parliamentary League against the Death Penalty -- as justice minister, while largely avoiding open debate on the issue.
London-based human rights group Amnesty International in a report in September accused Japan of keeping death row convicts in conditions that are "cruel, inhuman and degrading" and were tipping many into insanity.
Despite her initiative on the death penalty issue, question marks hang over the political future of Chiba since she lost her parliamentary seat in upper house elections early this month.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan has had heated discussions with his wife Nobuko about the death penalty, according to a book she published last week.
"We are totally divided as I strongly believe the death penalty should be abolished," she said. She wrote that Kan agreed capital punishment does not stop murders but also argued there was no public will for its abolition.
Naoto Nonaka, politics professor at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, said: "It's good to start a study. This is a matter to be handled in a bipartisan way. But abolishing the death penalty would mean a major change in Japan's system of law. We should spend a great deal of time debating the issue."
Makoto Teranaka, secretary-general of Amnesty International Japan, called the executions "regrettable" and said: "Minister Chiba said she wants to start a study on capital punishment, but Japan should first freeze all executions."
The latest hangings left 107 people on death row in Japan.
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