TOKYO -- Japan has quietly and aggressively broken an unofficial 3 1/2 -year moratorium on capital punishment, executing three convicts in a single day, say media reports.
At least one and reportedly two other convicted murderers were hanged Friday amid the secrecy that traditionally surrounds Japanese executions.
The Friday hanging of Shujiro Tachikawa, 62, in Osaka for the 1975 murders of his mother and wife, may be the harbinger of a rash of executions to come as Japan moves to clear its death rows of condemned criminals, including three members of a murderous leftist group. Their appeals for reduced sentences were knocked down by the Supreme Court last month in a clear signal of a new "get tough" mood in a country with zero tolerance for violent crime.
Two other condemned prisoners were also reported executed in Osaka and Sendai, according to Japanese media reports. The blitz of executions dominated television news programs because the multiple hangings are unprecedented.
While Justice Ministry officials refused to confirm or deny the reports, the hanging of Tachikawa was reported on Japan's public television network, NHK, and in the nation's largest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun. NHK is considered an authoritative source of news because of its government affiliation.
According to the London-based human rights group, Amnesty International, more than 580 criminals have been hanged in Japan since 1945.
Japan and the United States are the only industrialized nations that still execute criminals.
In Japan, as in the United States, capital punishment is supported by a broad segment of the public. A 1990 survey, the most recent on record, found that two-thirds of Japanese favor the death penalty for persons convicted of violent crimes.
Justice Minister Masaharu Gotoda, who gave final approval to the execution of Tachikawa, is known as an advocate of capital punishment.
"It is important to carry out the death penalty, for otherwise the legal system will be undermined," Mr. Gotoda said when he took office in December.
Part of the reason that nearly 3 1/2 years passed without an execution in Japan was that Mr. Gotoda's two immediate predecessors refused to sign death orders for humanitarian and religious reasons, a fact that infuriated Japanese conservatives.
Tachikawa's execution at Osaka Prison triggered protests from Amnesty International, Japanese groups opposed to capital punishment and several members of the Diet, Japan's parliament.
"Japan is going backward into the Dark Ages while most modern nations have abolished the death penalty," said Fu Mizota, a civil rights activist.
Japan's last known execution was carried out in November 1989, when a man convicted of killing his family was hanged.
The intervening three years and five months represented the longest hiatus of state-sanctioned deaths in postwar Japan.