Interview with Kazuo ISHIKAWA
by David McNeil
Outside the court house
Q: why did you come to Tokyo today?
A: I came to ask the judge through a microphone to open a re-trial.
Q: how many court appearance have you had ?
A: I’ve come here 20 to 30 times.
Q: Since 2009?
Q: What stage is your appeal at?
A: I’ve asked the judges to make the decision at an earlier date based on the conclusion they’d drawn with all the evidence that shows my innocence.
A: My innocence is so very clear, so they can make a decision any day now.
Q: How long has it been since your appeal?
A: 41 years.
Q: When were you arrested?
A: I was arrested on May 23, 1963.
Q: It’s been 52 years then.
A: Yes, it’s been 52 years. But when I was first arrested, I had other minor offenses like stealing a chicken and eating it or being in a fight. I was wrongly accused of the Sayama murder case a month later.
Q: How old are you now?
A: I’m 76 years old.
A: In two months, I’ll be 77 years old.
Q: Ask Ishikawa-san to introduce himself by his full name, age and where here lives
A: I live in Saitama-ken, Saitama-shi, Fujibi 1, where I was born.
I was born on January 14, 1939.
I am 76 years old. I’m Kazuo ISHIKAWA.
I will be 77 years old in two months.
Q: How long were you on death row?
A: 10 years.
Q: Can you describe conditions there?
A: The prison guard told me that I would be executed in a couple of years even if I was innocent. There is only one way I can be saved, he told me.
A: “You need to study so that you can appeal your innocence to the people of Japan in a letter. There is no other way you can survive,” the guard told me. And he taught me how to read and write.
Q: Can you describe how death-row inmates are made to wait for their sentence every day?
A: There is an order of execution, so the inmates wait properly seated with their legs folded and facing the wall every morning.
A: I also waited as I sat properly with my legs folded.
Q: We heard death-row inmates in Japan don’t know the date of their execution and made to wait, whereas in the states the execution date is announced beforehand.
A: In Japan, if you are not executed between 8 a.m. and noon, you are safe until the next day.
A: These days, the rules are stricter, but in the old days, if you survived the morning, you were allowed to freely go visit other inmates in their cells.
A: Now they can’t even meet families four times removed during their service. Their cells are locked too, I hear.
Q: Were any of your friends in prison executed?
A: Yes. I believe four of my friends were executed.
Q: Could you try to remember their execution and describe?
A: A month before the Sayama murder case, which I was accused of, there was a child abduction case. The accused greeted me as he left for the chamber.
A: Also Norio NAGAYAMA, who killed a police officer, was the first underaged offender to be executed in Japan.
A: Another one is named, Mr. Shioda, a college graduate. We were good friends. When the guard was not around, he would teach me without any education how to read and write.
I also knew Mr. Hakamada inside. These are all the death-row inmates I was friends with.
Q: Was Mr. Hakamada the only one who was wrongly accused?
A: No. There was a man named, Mr. Owada. Unfortunately, for he had no supporters, he was executed as he pleaded innocence.
Q: Were there many death-row inmates who were wrongly accused?
A: Yes, I think so. They just don’t tell us that.
A man named, Mr. Okada. He told me clearly. He told me he was innocent. However, he was having an extramarital affair, and he was afraid his wife would find out if he told her. He couldn’t plead innocence. He was with his lover at the time of the crime, and that’s why he couldn’t insist that he was wrongly accused, he told me.
He asked me to introduce him to Buraku Liberation League, my supporters, but the group only supported buraku people. I couldn’t introduce him. I really feel bad about it.
Q: What are you most angry about during your service?
A: It is true that he did something wrong, but I thought it was such a shame that someone like him who would never commit another crime was executed.
A: That is why I strongly believe death penalty should be abolished. However, I am still on parole. I am not supposed to even voice my opinion on it. I was released on parole on condition that I don’t voice my opposition against death penalty, so I can’t express my opinion.
A: I’m also thinking we need to change some of the many restrictions and rules inside the prison.
At the moment, though, I am not supposed to even utter my innocence until I am proven so.
Q: We hear death-row inmates are very strictly monitored and the living condition inside the prison is very harsh, for instance, without a heating device even in winter. We also hear that you are treated rough. Have you had any experience?
A: Luckily, I had a very strong support group so that the prison guards would often forgive me even if I did something that deserved disciplinary action. They overlooked it.
A: If you did something remotely wrong, you are usually subjected to a disciplinary action. They put you in a smaller cell, take away your futon and make you sit properly with your legs folded facing the wall all day.
I’ve never had to do it and so this is what I have heard from others.
Q: What do you remember about the interrogating process when first arrested? Could you read at the time?
A: I wasn’t interrogated first. The police told me that my older brother was arrested.
A: When the suspect went to receive the ransom, he managed to run away leaving his footprints in the field.
The police told me that my brother wore the same shoes as the footprints. I wore them. I was shorter than him, but my feet were two centimeters bigger than his. So the police said, “These shoes are your brother’s. They don’t fit you so you can’t be the suspect.”
In the end, they said they’d arrest my brother. Our family would have been in deep trouble if the main breadwinner gets arrested. I told the police they should arrest me instead.
Q: Then what happened? Did the interrogate you?
A: I wasn’t interrogated because I knew nothing about the crime. The police made up a story as though I’d confessed to the crime and wrote the statement.
I couldn’t read or write then, and so I had no idea what they wrote. I only gave them my finger print and wrote my name. That’s it.
Q: How soon was it after your arrest?
A: I denied the allegation until the 29th, so maybe around the 30th.
I pleaded innocence for a month.
Q: Then you signed the confession?
A: I signed that on the 30th day after my arrest.
Q: Has the police torture you or harassed you?
A: Yes, of course. It was very harsh. The most severe torture was to keep me awake at night. The next morning, at 8 o’clock, the interrogation began and they’d smack me when I’d doze off.
A: They’d hit me on the head. Now I don’t have any hair left, but they pulled my hair then too. Not being able to sleep was the hardest for me.
Q: What about other torturing method?
A: This (putting his fists on both sides of his head) was the most painful of all.
A: They make fists and grind them on your head. That was really painful. Even I couldn’t bear it in the end.
A: I still continued to plead my innocence for 30 days before that, nonetheless.
Q: What made you decide to sign the statement?
A: Because the police said they’d arrest my older brother, I told them to arrest me instead. So I signed the statement.
Q: You did it for your brother, then?
A: Yes. For my brother. We learned later, though, that my brother actually had an alibi.
A: He was already home the night of the murder. We didn’t know this at the time, so I believed he did it.
Q: As you said, there was no evidence. Only with the statement, you were sentenced.
A: Yes. That’s right.
Q: You said you thought hard about signing the statement.
A: If I hadn’t signed the statement, I’d never been convicted of a crime. I was 24 at the time. I would have never said I’d done it even if I went through harsh interrogation because I didn’t do it. However, I confessed to the crime I never committed. For that, I must apologize to the people of Japan. For that, I still blame myself to this day.
Q: Do you know the cases of Mr. Menda and Mr. Hakamada?
A: Hakamada, Akabori, and Saito Yukio, too, all four of them were waiting for execution.
A: The reason why they were all proven innocent was because the police who supposedly knew the cases disclosed the evidence. They were all granted re-trial and proven innocent.
A: For my case, too, the police are withholding a mountain of evidence. Once they disclose it, I will be proven innocent. That’s why I continue to stand in front of the court house--today, too―to ask the judge to order the prosecutors to disclose the evidence.
Q: You were arrested 52 years ago. Have there been any changes to the death penalty system or the way the Justice Ministry handles these cases?
A: I had no idea about how the system worked. I was ignorant. I didn’t even know the difference between lawyers, police, judges and prosecutors. At the time, I thought the police who interrogated me had the most power of all.
A: Now I know. I do know about legal procedures now because I studied. But at the time, I hated the lawyer who represented me. He was there to help me but I thought the police was the most powerful one.
Q: People say that the Public Prosecutors Office has not changed in the last 70 years. What do you think?
A: We need to change the system that allows wrong accusations. Japanese police can withhold a suspect for days, unlike other countries, which limit the initial detention to 24 or 48 hours and transfer the suspect to a jail, and I think that allows it to happen.
But in Japan, suspects are held under police custody for days so the suspects end up confessing to the crimes they didn’t commit. I’ve been to the UN to advocate to abolish this system.
Q: Nothing changed after your arrest, has it?
A: No, nothing. Nothing has changed.
Q: Describe what’s happening to your appeal process?
A: In January this year, the police who had long denied having any evidence disclosed a list of evidence they are withholding even from lawyers and judges.
NHK reported on this four times that this was an extraordinary case, but Tokyo High Court disclosed a list of evidence. With this, my innocence became even more clearly proven.
A: Maybe not this year, but we are hoping that a re-trial will be granted earlier next year.
But then I must tell you that I do have an alibi. During the hours the crime was said to have been committed, I was having dinner with my parents, two younger sisters and a younger brother. They can back me up on that, but the police said their statement couldn’t be used as evidence because they were my family. It was really too bad.
Q: The police have evidence of the Sayama case, you said, but they have refused to hand it to your lawyer?
A: They’ve refused.
A: There are four people who committed suicide. We assume there is evidence that tells the suspect is one of the people who committed suicide. That would then reveal I was wrongly accused. For fear that more than 10 million people in the buraku communities across the nation would denounce the police for discrimination, the police are refusing to disclose the evidence.
A: Disclosing evidence would prove the innocence of Ishikawa Kazuo. The police know that. That’s why they are still refusing.
Q: The police, you said, know you are innocent and that’s why they are withholding the evidence.
A: That’s right.
Q: Why? Are they ashamed?
A: Yes, I think so. The fact they framed me to take the blame for the murder. The police are also trying to maintain the clean record of their senior officers.
Q: Despite such high odds against you, why do you persist with your appeal process? (Seems an obvious question but worth asking)
A: I have in the past thought about killing myself, but I would remain guilty and not be able to claim my innocence if I did.
I must continue with this struggle to pursue the truth, I began to think. That’s why I am still here standing.
Q: Are you against death penalty?
A: Yes. I have spoken about it at the UN. Many times.
A: I’m against it because I have seen so many inmates who I knew were innocent sent to the chambers. We must abolish death penalty and executing wrongly accused before it’s too late. I have appealed to the UN that we must abolish this system.
A: I told you that I couldn’t go to school when I was growing up. That’s because I was a buraku. No one hired people like us from the buraku community. I began working as a live-in servant at fifth grade. Most people of buraku couldn’t go to school.
A: My family was so poor that we ate chicken feed as our main staple during winter. We couldn’t even go to school. That’s why they framed me into a criminal.
A: I may upset you for saying this, but I am glad I was dragged into this mess.
A: If I hadn’t been dragged into this case, I wouldn’t have known how to read or write, or known about how there is a movement to eradicate discrimination for 76 years. For that reason, I was able to learn how to read and write, which is a treasure that I could not buy. Of course, maybe I was lucky to have met the prison guard who taught me the importance of literacy.
I was a death-row inmate but the guard believed my innocence and taught me how to read and write. I know this ability will help me in the second chance I was granted after I win the case to prove my innocence.
A: The guard told me, “Mr. Ishikawa, you need to learn how to express yourself.”