Dialog Box

Human Rights | Social Justice
Hakamada: A Life on Death Row


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In 2014, Iwao Hakamada was released from death row in Japan having spent almost half a century inside. Through Hakamada’s herculean struggle for freedom, the documentary explores the monumental challenges that suspects face in a criminal justice system that produces a stunning 99.9% conviction rate. Hakamada: A Life on Death Row also pries open the secrecy surrounding the death penalty in Japan to expose the harsh brutality of Japanese prisons.

Told through interviews with key people involved in the case, the key aim of the documentary is to raise international awareness of the Hakamada case in order to help put an end to the farcical appeals that he is still being subjected to from unrepentant prosecutors who want him back on death row.

Additionally, the documentary aims to jump-start a conversation on the morals of death row and galvanise public efforts to abolish the death penalty and to reform key parts of the criminal justice system in Japan.

My plan is to submit the documentary to film festivals and to arrange a run of public and private screenings of the film. I also hope to turn the documentary into an educational tool for use in schools and to license it out to video-on-demand services, to help spread the message about Hakamada’s case and the use of the death penalty in Japan.

So far, the documentary has been fully self-funded. I spent 2 years teaching English part-time to help cover the costs while volunteers from Amnesty International Japan kindly gave their time to help translate and interpret. In 2015, I returned to Australia and since then, I have been editing down the footage. Most recently, I have just finished a rough cut.  

However, the most significant hurdle to completing the documentary is in securing funds to pay for archival footage. Although the documentary predominantly consists of footage I shot, there are parts of the film that relies on archival footage and third-party images from Japanese broadcasters such as NHK, TV-Asahi and Kyodo News. In order to legally use this footage I must pay for third-party licenses which cost a significant amount. Funds from DAF donations will go towards purchasing these licenses.


How does the project meet the aims of a philanthropic foundation?

This documentary will meet the aims of philanthropic foundations that strive to correct miscarriages of justice around the world. The film puts a magnifying glass to Hakamada’s 47-year ordeal, throughout which the Japanese justice system repeatedly failed him. He was never granted the presumption of innocence, was subjected to a humiliating 21-day interrogation, and had to deal with a system that overtly favoured prosecutors over defence attorneys. As a result, despite a total of seven attempts to overturn his initial guilty conviction in 1968, Hakamada remained incarcerated for 45 years. He is now free but prosecutors are desperate to send him back. This film meets the aims of philanthropic organisations that wish to promote strong democracies and fair justice systems. 

In addition, the amount of time Hakamada spent on death row caused him significant psychological damage. Given the extreme secrecy around death row in Japan, inmates aren’t told about their execution date until the morning of. Subsequently, inmates are left in a perpetual state of distress – never knowing which day will be their last. By humanising the inmates and showing the testimony of former executioners in Japan, the project aims to broaden the scope of public discussion on the death penalty and hopefully lead to its repeal, by exposing Japanese and international audiences to the brutal reality of capital punishment in Japan. Philanthropic organisations that wish to abolish the death penalty will be able to align themselves with this aspect of the project.

Aims & Objectives

What outcomes do you hope to achieve by making this film and how will you measure its impact?

The first outcome is to help spread awareness of the Hakamada case and the inherent injustice behind his wrongful conviction in order to build public pressure to defeat the prosecutor’s efforts to perpetuate this injustice. While Hakamada is free, public prosecutors have sought an appeal at the Tokyo High Court to overturn his release. It is suspected that by appealing, the prosecutors are ‘dragging their feet’, not necessarily with the intention of putting him back on death row, but to avoid having to pay compensation in the hope that he passes away before the case is finalised. I hope to build domestic and international pressure to force the Ministry of Justice to drop the case and start to pay Hakamada his compensation. 

In addition, Hakamada barely stood a chance given the unequal distribution of power that favours prosecutors in Japan over defence attorneys, notably evidenced by the 99.9% conviction rate. Prosecutors in Japan have unrivalled powers, from being able to investigate and interrogate the suspect for up to 23 days with no time limit, to being able to ‘adapt’ confessions and witness statements to their own liking. Meanwhile, defence attorneys are barred from being present during interrogations due to concerns they may disrupt the ‘harmonious’ relationship between interrogator and suspect. It is important to note that while some changes are currently being implemented, many of the shortcomings in the system that led to Hakamada’s arrest and confinement still remain unchallenged. Favouritism of prosecutors over defence attorneys and the lack of appropriate checks and balances over prosecutorial discretion are significant factors in wrongful convictions in Japan. This needs to change.

Lastly I hope to nurture public discussions about the death penalty in Japan. Japan is the only remaining developed nation (besides the glaring exception of the USA) that has retained the death penalty and the punishment remains remarkably popular with between 80-90% of those polled, in favour of keeping the penalty. Part of the issue is that it has become a political necessity to be seen to be tough on crime and so the negatives of the death penalty are rarely discussed, except when in scandalous wrongful convictions, which are characterised as isolated instances. Subsequently, there is an almost passive support for the death penalty as well as a lack of public will for reforming the system. Talks to executioner who have witnessed the executions themselves and former death-row inmates who have suffered the consequences of being wrongfully incarcerated in solitary confinement, will bring the brutal reality of the death penalty to the screen in a way that will hopefully confront the audience and their attitudes towards the morality of capital punishment.


What is your education and outreach strategy?

I am planning on adopting a broad strategy that involves building a coalition comprising of international actors that will exert external pressure on Japan and local citizens who can channel the pressure into civil action. This will be done in a number of ways.

A festival run including Melbourne International Film Festival, Tribeca, Antenna, Hot Docs, socially progressive film festivals such as Sundance, and more niche festivals such as the Human Rights and Arts Festival in Australia, as well as exposure through global youth media networks such as Vice will spread the net far and wide. I am also aiming for a private screening circuit run with universities and partnered organisations that have been involved in the project including University of Melbourne’s Asian Law Centre, Queensland University of Technology Law Department, the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations, and Amnesty International. These screenings will be done with Q and As with myself and team members involved including expert panels to help encourage discussion and audience engagement with the issues.

Press kits delivered to international news media organisations will further broaden exposure for the film and help to jump-start a global discussion about the issues identified in the film. This will increase international public scrutiny over Japan’s use of the death penalty which may act as a catalyst for change and help to build an effective international alliance as a result of heightened public awareness and greater public engagement with global movements to abolish the death penalty. Targeted approaches to ambassadors and politicians will encourage them to confront their Japanese counterparts to reconsider the state policies.

By increasing the public profile of Hakamada’s case, it will drive greater engagement towards Amnesty International’s cause to protect him and also to help draw people into being involved in Amnesty International’s ‘urgent actions’ which involve writing letters and signing petitions to pressure the Japanese government to drop the appeal and to continue with the re-trial. Furthermore, in the absence of any state compensation, audiences can also be directly involved in global donation drives that will assist in Hakamada’s recovery and rehabilitation.

Louis Dai
Louis Dai
Total budget
75 Minutes