Expectations are growing that Pope Francis will meet with an 83-year-old man whose death sentence has been suspended during his visit to Japan next month, to send a clear signal about the Holy See's opposition to capital punishment under his pontificate.
It was reported in mid-September that the Vatican is considering the pope meeting with Iwao Hakamada, who was sentenced to death for a 1966 quadruple murder. He was released in 2014 under a district court ruling and is awaiting a retrial at the Supreme Court in which he is seeking exoneration.
With the Catholic Church having announced in August last year a change in its catechism to state that "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person," anti-capital punishment campaigners hope the pontiff will issue some form of message to Japan on the death penalty if the meeting takes place.
"I expect the upcoming trip to be an opportunity to appeal to the pope's strong determination that all life should be protected," said Tomoki Yanagawa of the Jesuit Social Center in Tokyo. "He must be interested in issues in Japan related to (the sanctity) of life, such as suicide, death from overwork and poverty as well as the death penalty."
While the pope's two predecessors both spoke out against the death penalty, Francis was the first pope to change official church teaching on the issue.
Yanagawa, as a Catholic, has worked for abolishing the death penalty together with like-minded people from other religious backgrounds, including Buddhists, based on a shared belief in the sacrosanct value of human life. He co-founded an anti-death penalty civil group recently with lawyers and scholars.
Japan is one of only a few advanced nations to maintain the death penalty at a time when more than two-thirds of states around the world have abolished it by law or in practice.
The hope for a meeting with Hakamada arose last year when the Holy See requested the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan to compile a report on him. Hakamada received baptism on Christmas Eve in 1984 while behind bars.
Hakamada, who has been struggling to clear his name over the murder of a family of four, was freed after the Shizuoka District Court granted him a retrial based on DNA tests and suspended his death sentence and incarceration.
His release from the Tokyo Detention House received widespread media coverage in Japan.
However, the Tokyo High Court overturned the lower court's decision last year, showing doubts over the DNA tests. Hakamada filed an appeal with the Supreme Court. Due to his age, he was allowed to retain his freedom while his case pends with the top court.
Inspired by the Catholic Church's change of stance on capital punishment under Pope Francis, Hakamada's older sister, Hideko, sent a letter to the Vatican in May.
"I wrote that it would be the best gift for my brother if the pope could meet with him in Tokyo even for one minute," said Hideko, 86. "I hope the meeting will take place in a quiet and calm atmosphere, not as a spectacular event."
Hideko has devotedly supported her brother, whose mental health has deteriorated due to the decades he spent in solitary confinement under the constant threat of execution.
Kim Sung Woong, a film director who made a documentary about Hakamada, said he hopes that if the meeting with the pope goes ahead, the case will once more receive widespread attention.
"His appeal is pending at the top court, and Mr. Hakamada might be detained again according to its decision," said Kim, who has closely followed the lives of Hakamada and his sister since Hakamada's release.
"The pope will meet with Mr. Hakamada with the understanding that he is still on death row," he said. "People will inevitably pay close attention to such a situation."
Separately, defense lawyers for Hakamada also wrote to the Vatican, saying a meeting with the pope would greatly encourage him.
Japan has been urged by a U.N. human rights body to establish a moratorium as a first step toward the final abrogation of the death penalty.
Executions continue, however, with 15 death-row inmates, including the founder and 12 former senior members of the AUM Shinrikyo cult, hanged last year.
In August this year, two more inmates were executed, bringing the number of executions under the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in 2012, to 38.
The executions have taken place against a backdrop of robust public support for the death penalty, with a 2014 government poll showing only 9.7 percent believed it should be abolished while 80.3 percent agreed its existence "cannot be helped."
Despite the unfavorable climate facing the anti-death penalty movement, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations declared in 2016 that it will work for abolishing capital punishment by 2020.
It said the exoneration of four death-row inmates through retrials in the 1980s and Hakamada's case showed that executions of innocent people are inevitable as long as capital punishment is maintained.
Also sending a letter to the Vatican, the lawyers' group asked the pope to issue a message to the people of Japan to call for termination of capital punishment.
Pope Francis, the first pontiff in nearly four decades to travel to Japan, will visit from Nov. 23 to 26. His itinerary includes the atomic-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with Tokyo.
It is also expected that the pope will meet with those affected by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan's northeastern Tohoku region and led to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.