A former correctional officer recounts one experience of an execution in detail, because he can never forget.
The following story is based on an Abema TV interview of retired correctional officer Hirohiko Fujita who was employed at a detention center in Osaka for 33 years and was involved in executions there.
As dawn was breaking near the end of a night shift, Fujita and four other jailers were called into a waiting room. It wasn’t uncommon for officers to get pulled into an extra duty around this time, but this was first time Fujita was ever asked to simply “wait.”
Fujita was relatively new to the prison but he had been around long enough to hear rumors that if you’re told to “wait” it meant you were on deck to take part in an execution. However, that seemed odd to Fujita because other rumors suggested it was the officers with poor work performance who got selected.
He even knew of some guards who had gone through their entire career without ever being told to “push the button.” With his flawless performance record, Fujita was sure he would be among them, but here he was sitting next to four others for 30 minutes before they got called into the warden’s office one by one.
Considering the nature of his task, Fujita stayed away from all the death row inmates to keep things as impersonal as possible. He was told that the person to be hanged was a 70-year-old convict.
Fujita thought it was strange that someone so old would be put to death when time would probably do the job for them. So he decided to research the inmate’s criminal record to find out the reason for his sentence.
The condemned man was released from prison on parole and placed into the custody of a Buddhist priest who gave him a place to stay while he tried to put his life back together. In return for the priest’s unconditional kindness, the man raped and murdered the priest’s wife and daughter.
Fujita didn’t need to hear anymore. He was convinced this man should pay for what he did with his life. On behalf of the victims and their families, no doubt remained in Fujtia’s mind that he would be able to pull the lever if the time came.
Sometimes, inmates would be told of their execution a day in advance to give them time to say goodbye to loved ones. However, this man’s execution would be of the more common variety with no announcement.
The warden and a muscular escort arrived at the prisoner’s cell and told him to “get out.” They made no mention of what was about to happen, but when they turned left out of the door rather than the right they had taken every day prior, the inmate began to suspect something.
The old man was then taken into an interrogation room with the warden who informs him that his execution is about to take place. Likely because of the inmate’s age he did not bother to speak with the other guards to prolong his life anymore.
He, the warden, and other officers simply walked along the corridor leading into the gallows. Other correctional officers stood five meters apart along the hallway in case he tried to make an escape.
▼ This video shows the layout for a Tokyo detention center’s
execution area which is slightly different from Osaka’s
The man was then taken into the Execution Room, inside which an alter was placed so that he could make his peace. A Buddhist or Christian altar is installed in advance depending on the inmate’s particular beliefs.
Also, during this time the noose is hidden behind a curtain so that the inmate doesn’t panic at the sight of it. Meanwhile, Fujita and the four others entered the Button Room and got in position.
Once the prisoner’s prayers were finished, their hands were handcuffed behind their back, their legs were bound, they were blindfolded, and a noose was placed around their neck. The warden then asked the condemned if they had any last words. He also had to make sure that the prisoner was completely finished speaking before ordering the execution.
According to Fujita, the reason for this is that if they are speaking as they are hanged they will bite through their tongue causing blood to pour out in what would be considered an “unnecessarily cruel” death.
Once the prisoner was finished speaking, the warden gave the order to begin the hanging. In the button room a red light turned on signaling everyone to press their buttons at the same time. From each position a sound of gushing air, like a truck’s air brakes, could be heard traveling out of the room towards the prisoner. Then a loud thud could be heard as the square-meter platform beneath his feet gave way.
The body fell, and depending on its weight, the inmate’s neck could break and cause a swift paralysis before death by strangulation occurred. After the officer waiting below steadied the body, a medical examiner checked the pulse to confirm the death.
Then the five men who pushed the buttons went below to remove the body from the noose, take off the restraints, and place it in a coffin. Flowers purchased by the government were also placed inside and the casket was closed and transferred to the morgue area. From there it would be sent for cremation.
The officers involved were handed 3,000 yen (US$27) on their way out and given a meal before they could go home. However, everyone would keep their heads down and eat in silence. As he returned home, Fujita warned his wife that he was covered in salt – a common custom in Japan for people who have had contact with the dead.
As for the existence of the death penalty, he would agree that it would be great if the world could function without it. However, redemption for him is an ideal, and after what Fujita has seen, he has little faith in ideals.
Now 70 years old, this is the first time Fujita has spoken of these events, but he has carried them around ever since, being able to recall them as vividly as if they happened yesterday. Although he does admit that correctional officers can get traumatized from the job, he would not say that about himself.
When asked what advice he would give to the younger generation taking up his line of work, Fujita said, “It’s painful, but face it with confidence that you can do your job. Also, I hope you can stop it from haunting you.”