Japan opened up its gallows for the first time to domestic media on Friday, a move that could spark public debate over executions in a country where a hefty majority supports retaining the death penalty.

Justice Minister Keiko Chiba, a known opponent of capital punishment, signed off on the executions of two convicted killers and attended their hangings last month. She set up a group within the ministry to study the death penalty.

TV footage from inside the Tokyo Detention House showed the trap door, the viewing room and rooms where the inmate can meet with a cleric, with a Buddhist altar and a Buddha statue. The trap door was closed and the rope was not exhibited.

There was the smell of incense ... The impression was that of sterile objects in a clean, carpeted room, said a reporter from broadcaster NTV, among those taken to the prison in a bus, its windows obscured by curtains to hide the chamber's location.

Footage also showed the button room, where three prison officers press a button at the same time to open the trap door, so that it is not clear which button opened the door.

Japan, along with the United States, is one of only two Group of Eight rich countries that retain capital punishment. It currently has 107 inmates on death row.

An overwhelming majority supports the death penalty in Japan. Last year, 86 percent said in a government survey that retaining the death penalty was unavoidable, up from 80 percent in 1999, though a recent NHK public TV survey put support at 57 percent.


Experts say they are concerned over how little the public knows about the death penalty despite a new lay judge system from last year under which ordinary citizens, along with judges, could hand down such sentences.

Japan has been criticised by the U.N. Committee against Torture and opponents of the death penalty over the secrecy of its execution system and the psychological strain it puts on inmates and their families.

There will be no small impact from opening up the site of executions, until now shrouded in a thick veil, Kyodo news agency said.

It is fully possible that this will spark public debate over whether to maintain or abolish the system, as hoped for by the justice minister.

Inmates are notified on the morning of the execution, usually about an hour beforehand, and families of inmates are given no advance notification, experts say.

The Justice Ministry in 2007 started releasing the names and crimes of inmates sentenced to death. Details on executions had previously been strictly limited and opponents of the death penalty say the ministry still restricts information.

(Editing by Ron Popeski)