Ikebukuro 'I was in prison and you visited me.'

The death penalty in Japan

At the moment we are visiting eight prisoners here in Ikebukuro, seven of whom are on death row. The Supreme Court has already upheld the sentences of three of them, while the other four are still working on their appeals, knowing that the chances of acquittal or sentence reduction are next to nothing.

It is a sad fact that the death penalty still exists in Japan. After a period of no executions, a new Minister of Justice has re-instituted the practice, and at an increasingly rapid pace. It is equally sad to know that the majority of the population is in favour of the death penalty, and to realize to what point public opinion is influenced by the media. Lately it has come to light that there were numerous errors in the trials, with devastating effects on the lives of those concerned. These situations have often been rooted in the overly close relationship between the police and the judicial system, in sworn testimony extracted under duress rather than on proof, and in inexperience.

Our lives have been deeply affected by the suffering of these people. Every time they hear noises in the hallway at dawn they wonder if their executioners are coming to take them... And there is the deep suffering of not being able to turn the clock back and make another choice for their lives, no way of undoing a terrible deed. They often write letters to the families of the victims to ask forgiveness, but many times these letters are never sent, or if they are sent, they are frequently returned unopened.

The power of friendship

Our visits with inmates usually don't last more than 10 or 12 minutes. We speak about the ordinary things of life, bring them little things they need: glasses, a Bible, a dictionary, stamps. Sometimes the ever-present guard, who must take notes on every word, becomes part of the conversation. When this happens it lends a bit of humanity to an awkward situation.

Often the inmates share openly in their letters, speaking of their past, their feelings, their hunger for God. We are deeply touched by the depth that reveals itself because they know their time is limited. It is like someone who knows that they are dying from cancer and they relive their whole life.

In their isolation they often begin to pray and reflect. They learn to live the present moment, as that is all they have. Some discover gifts they never knew they had, like drawing or writing. Many read the Bible and tell us how they have become friends of Jesus. They write to us about what they have discovered. Sometimes I muse, naive as it may sound, that if an earthquake suddenly threw open the prison gates, Japan would be evangelized by these people!