TOKYO (AFP) - Japan carried out its first execution of the year on Thursday when it hanged a man for a triple murder, the ninth prisoner to be put to death since the conservative government of Shinzo Abe took power in 2012.
Masanori Kawasaki, 68, was convicted of stabbing three people to death - including a three-year-old girl - as they slept, after breaking into their house in Kagawa, western Japan, in 2007.
"It was an extremely cruel case," Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki told reporters.
"I ordered the execution after prudent consideration," he said.
Apart from the United States, Japan is the only major industrialised democracy to use capital punishment.
Surveys have shown the death penalty has overwhelming public support, despite repeated protests from European governments and human rights groups.
Tokyo did not execute anyone in 2011, the first full year in nearly two decades without an execution amid muted debate on the rights and wrongs of the practice.
But in March 2012 it abruptly resumed its use of capital punishment, dispatching three multiple murderers.
International advocacy groups say Japan's system is cruel because inmates can wait for their executions for many years in solitary confinement and are only told of their impending death a few hours ahead of time.
"Death row inmates live under the constant fear of execution, never knowing from one day (to) the next if they are going to be put to death," said Ms Roseann Rife, East Asia research director at Amnesty International.
"This adds psychological torture to an already cruel and inhumane punishment," she said in a statement.
There have been a number of high-profile miscarriages of justice exposed in recent years, including the case of Iwao Hakamada, who was released from jail in March, aged 78, after decades on death row for a multiple murder he did not commit.
Hakamada, who was believed to be the world's longest-serving death row inmate, was the victim of a flawed investigation in which evidence was fabricated.
Mr Tanigaki said he acknowledged anti-execution calls based on concerns over wrongful convictions, including the Hakamada case.
"It is natural that considering if the death-row prisoner actually committed the crime is the most important factor," Mr Tanigaki said, according to Japan's public broadcaster NHK.
Justice ministry figures show Japan now has 129 inmates on death row, although the number still includes Hakamada, pending a technical decision on a retrial.