Book review: 『誰も知らない死刑の舞台裏』 by Shoji Kondo


Title: 『誰も知らない死刑の舞台裏』 (だれもしらない しけいのぶたいうら)
Author: Shoji Kondo (近藤昭二)
Published by 二見レインボー文庫 (Futami Rainbow Bunko)
292 pages.

Shoji Kondo is a journalist, author and scriptwriter. He is the representative of the NPO法人731部隊・細菌戦資料センター, an NPO that works on revealing the atrocities committed in Unit 731, as well as establishing Japan’s responsibility and build a better relationship with China. (source)


I have been wanting to learn more about death penalty in Japan since I learnt that death row inmates are informed of their execution date the very morning of their execution. I was very shocked when I read this for the first time, I had to double and triple check online, because it just did not seem possible to me. When I found out that the family of the person executed was notified of the execution only after it had been carried out, I was even more shocked if possible.

I know that public opinion in Japan is massively for the death penalty, but at the same time, it seems difficult to find information about the system, like the daily life of inmates or the process that leads to the order of execution. Apart from the Minister of Justice announcing in a press conference that the execution of a prisoner has been carried out, it seems that there is not much that the public actually knows.

I chose 『誰も知らない死刑の舞台裏』 because one review on Amazon convinced me to buy it, and I don’t regret my choice because this book was exactly what I was looking for.

The preface is an overview of what the book will be about and was very interesting to read. The author underlines that there is a lot of secrecy around capital punishment in Japan. The author contrasts this situation with the United States where there are open debates over death penalty, and where you can find public information about upcoming executions. In Japan, no one seem to talk about death penalty, and it is impossible for the public to know who is going to be executed and when.

The first chapter is an overall history of death penalty in the world. It was not the chapter I was the most looking forward to, but it was still very interesting to read, especially parts on how methods of executions have evolved towards more “human” practices, like lethal injection in the United States or guillotine in France. However, I strongly recommend that you skip the first two parts of this chapter if you don’t feel like reading about various medieval methods of execution and have your mind filled with unpleasant descriptions.

The second chapter is about the evolution of death penalty in Japan, and I learned a lot through it. The author explains how death penalty has changed over the years, analysing for example how the method of execution changed or how the number and nature of crimes that are punishable by death diminished over the years. The author also takes us through famous trials and cases that have shaped criminal law in Japan.

Chapter 3 is about the daily life of prisoners, and this is what I was the most interested in. Here again, the author goes through cases that have influenced the regulations relative to the prisoners’ rights (what they have access to, contacts with the outside world, etc.). It also describes the last day of inmates and their way to the execution chamber. While the fate of those convicted changes dramatically depending on whether they are sentenced to death or to life imprisonment (where they can get a chance of parole after only 10 years), the decision process that leads to one or another is not objectively settled. The author goes through several examples where similar cases have resulted in different sentences or where the same case has received a different verdict in different trials. While there are guidelines for the judge to follow, in the end, the verdict can change depending on what the judge considers as important.

Finally, the last chapter goes through cases of possible wrong conviction, like the famous and hard to believe Izuka case.

I find this book very informative and written in a pedagogic way that makes it easier to read than it looks like. The author explains everything to a non-specialised readership, and overall, I have learned a lot and was engrossed in the book from beginning to end. As I write this review, the bunko edition of the book only has two ratings on Amazon, so I guess that either the topic or the author’s position are not that popular, but it is a book that I recommend if you want to read a Japanese author standing against death penalty.