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Japan's justice minister Keiko Chiba has invited the press to enter the Tokyo Detention Centre execution chamber, shortly after she personally attended the hanging of two convicted murderers.

Chiba is a lawyer, former member of the Japan Socialist Party and personally opposed to capital punishment. When she came to office last year, it appeared the death penalty was "effectively scrapped" in Japan, since she has responsibility for signing execution orders.

However, she surprisingly authorised the July hanging of "Kazuo Shinozawa, 59, convicted of killing six women in a jewellery shop fire, and Hidenori Ogata, 33, who killed a man and a woman in 2003".

The BBC explained that "as justice minister she believed it was her duty to witness the executions in person".

Chiba said: "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."

As part of that discussion, Chiba announced the formation of a group to examine the capital punishment issue, and activists hope the execution chamber visit will "spark public debate".

Nobuto Hosaka, a former lawmaker and death penalty opponent, told Reuters: "The key is what type of debate could take place in the Japanese society after the opening of the execution chamber, including the role of the media and myself."

Whether Japanese society is prepared to discuss the matter remains to be seen. There is strong support for the death penalty, and as the Times explains, "a life sentence means 30 years and courts are not permitted to impose it without the possibility of parole".

Only with a change to the law which redefines a life sentence to mean exactly that "will public opinion tolerate the formal abolition of capital punishment", the paper notes.

There are currently 107 inmates on death row in Japan, which with the United States forms the small club of industrialised democracies still retaining the ultimate deterrent.

Prisoners are not informed of their impending demise until a couple of hours before the execution, and relatives are only informed after the act.

Amnesty International has condemned this practice, and claims "that the stress of not knowing which day would be their last was driving some condemned Japanese prisoners insane".

Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK, said: "Japan’s death-row system is driving prisoners into the depths of mental illness but they are still being taken and hanged at only hours’ notice in an utterly cruel fashion."

Amnesty's report into mental health and the death penalty in Japan can be found here (pdf). ®

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