By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese activists opposed to capital punishment hope the visit of Pope Francis this weekend will help to soften public opinion in a nation where most people still support the death penalty.
Pope Francis, who will visit Japan from Nov. 23 to 26, said last year the death penalty is neither Christian nor humane. The Vatican then formally changed its teaching to declare the death penalty inadmissible whatever the circumstances.
Fewer than 1% of Japanese are Christian but activists say Francis is widely respected as a global moral leader. Opinion polls suggest about 80% of Japanese support the death penalty as a deterrent to crime.
"Most Japanese don't think of the death penalty as a legal or human rights issue," said Shinji Oguma, secretary-general of a group of Japanese lawmakers discussing the future of the death penalty.
"I hope the pope will say something that echoes in people's hearts," he told a news conference on Thursday.
Echoing that view, Kazunori Saito, vice-president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations said: "We believe it's important for the people of Japan to listen to the words of the pope and see what they feel in their own hearts."
Prisoners are hanged, and the condemned are not told when it will take place until the morning of the day their sentence is carried out. For decades, the government did not even officially announce that capital sentences had been carried out.
In Tokyo, Francis may meet Iwao Hakamada, an 83-year-old man who spent 48 years in prison, mostly on death row, until new DNA evidence led to a suspension of his sentence. Hakamada, said to be suffering from dementia, was baptized in prison and is awaiting retrial.
Some 120 prisoners are currently on death row and two were executed this year. Fifteen were executed in 2018, the highest number for a decade, including 13 former members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, who had been convicted of carrying out sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway.
Japan is one of only two Group of Seven advanced nations, along with the United States, to retain the death penalty.
"I think that here, the pope will be speaking and showing how life and human dignity can be protected in any case," Mario Marazziti, from the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, told Thursday's news conference.
"No exception... up to the complete refusal of war, atomic weapons, and at the same time how to respect life even of the guilty ones."
A dedicated anti-nuclear campaigner, Pope Francis will also visit Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the only two cities in the world to have been targeted by atomic bombs. He is set to deliver a major anti-nuclear message in Nagasaki.
(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Gareth Jones)