NAGOYA, Japan — Like all prisoners on Japan's death row, Masao Akahori knew that his execution would come without warning. The fear made him stiffen at the sound of the guards' approaching footsteps, wondering if the clack of boots was a countdown to death or would pass by, fading into the silence of another reprieve.
One morning in the early 1970s, the march stopped outside Akahori's cell and a key turned the lock.
"We have come to fetch you," the guards told him.
Akahori remembers his legs collapsing under him, that five guards had to drag him from his cell. He remembers the nervous whispering when the guards suddenly realized they had come to hang the wrong man.
It was Yamamoto they wanted. In the next cell.
"They put me back, no apology, and went for Yamamoto," Akahori recalls. He is 75 now, with watery eyes, a ghost of the 24-year-old who was living under bridges in 1954 when he says police beat a false confession out of him that he had raped and murdered a schoolgirl. "They closed the small window in my cell so I couldn't see what was going on with Yamamoto.
"But I could hear them," he says, in a voice that still trembles with the telling.
Akahori says he was so traumatized by his near-death experience that, for several years, he could not speak. But he did eventually win a retrial, and in 1989, after 31 years on death row, he was declared not guilty and released.
Yet his story remains precious. Not simply because he survived to tell it, but because it offers a rare peek into the mists of Japan's death row, where prisoners live in conditions designed to induce submission and where executions, all by hanging, are carried out in secret.
The Japanese government says 75 inmates await execution, living under rules set out in a 1908 prison law and tightened by directives in 1963:
They are prohibited from talking to other prisoners. Their contact with the outside world is limited to infrequent, supervised visits from family or their lawyers. They are not allowed hobbies or television, and may own only three books, though more can be borrowed with the warden's permission as long as the content is not deemed to preach "subversion of authority." Exercise is limited to two short sessions a week outside their cells, four solid walls and one small window. Some rely on sleeping pills, bought with money provided by their families, to survive the isolation.
Many prisoners live in this purgatory for more than two decades while appeals against their sentences churn through Japan's notoriously sluggish legal system. But once appeals are exhausted, executions will come without notice, on the whim and with the stamp of the justice minister.
There are no last meals. Hangings are carried out without witnesses, and the inmate's family members aren't informed until the prisoner is dead and they are told to collect the body.
Japan's bar associations and human rights groups have long protested -- to a public that shows little inclination to listen -- that conditions on death row are an "affront to human decency." But corrections officials argue that the system is designed to ensure prisoners on death row remain calm, do not become suicidal and do not try to escape.
"We want to maintain the mental stability of those waiting for death," says Kenichi Matsumura, a specialist at the Adult Correction Section of the Justice Ministry. "Emotionally, everybody wants them to face their last moments in peace."
Whether that works is an open question. During his years on death row, Akahori often heard those footsteps stop at other cells. Some prisoners went compliantly, he says. Others fought vigorously.
"Of course, some people don't want to die," Akahori says. "They shout. And the guards would try to cover their mouths and tie their hands with towels to take them away."
The gag extends to a clampdown on public information from death row. The executed prisoner's name is never released, becoming known only if the family chooses. There are no Stanley Tookie Williams-style media frenzies in Japan, no debates about the sincerity of a prisoner's remorse or the merits of redemption. You don't see candlelight vigils outside Japanese prisons on the night of scheduled executions, because only the authorities know one is coming.
Even Japanese lawmakers have difficulty seeing conditions for themselves. In 2003, nine lawmakers fought for and won the right to visit an execution chamber, though not witness an execution. It was the first time legislators had been allowed inside since 1973, according to Amnesty International, which says Japan's death row violates the country's signed pledges on human rights protection. (Corrections officials refused the Los Angeles Times permission to visit any of the seven penitentiaries that hold death row units.)