The 80-year-old priest, who just retired as the 30th abbot of the Tokoji Temple in Tokyo, has served approximately 60 condemned killers over 52 years. In Japan, executions are carried out by hanging in a chamber. When a death order has been issued, the prisoner is informed the morning of his or her execution. The prisoner’s family and legal representatives are not informed until afterwards.
There are different types of inmates, Watanabe noted. There are some that he doesn’t want to let die.
“One of the prisoners told me before his execution that if he were reborn he would like to come back as a good person and not be sentenced to die,” Watanabe said. “When I heard this from him, I didn’t want to let him die. It was heartbreaking.”
After they are sentenced to die, the law strictly regulates their visitors and no one can meet them, according to Watanabe. Although, a few people such as news writers can meet with them because of their special connections.
All he can do for these prisoners is chant, listen and talk with them. “At first,” he says, “we just talked about matters of intimacy since they love this kind of talk. Then, they asked me to discuss more serious things, so I started to talk about Buddhism. It is very difficult to talk about Buddhist for them at the beginning.”
Watanabe learned the meaning of, and gained confidence in, Buddhism through the condemned inmates.
“I saw their dark hearts and spirits turn brighter,” he said. “After watching them change, I knew Buddhism helped them. In a sense, I was raised by the prisoners.”
On living through the atomic bomb in Hiroshima
“I was exposed to radiation in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima when I was 14 years old,” Watanabe said. “I know the fear of radiation and about discrimination through my own experience.
“Remember, some of victims (after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was damaged by an earthquake and tsunami in March) were bullied after they moved out of contaminated areas to safer neighborhoods, especially the children who went to new schools.”
He added that people do not understand how sad it is to be discriminated against.
“Radiation not only harms our health but also the human heart,” he said. “I believe I can help the fight against discrimination by sharing my own experiences.”
Watanabe still suffers from his exposure to radiation and has battled multiple diseases all his life. He now has interstitial lung disease (ILD) and he cannot take enough oxygen into his body without an oxygen inhaler.
On helping disaster victims
Japan’s disaster victims need time to heal, according to Watanabe. To turn around their suffering and learn to live and smile again.
“I probably can’t do anything for them beyond quietly listening to their voices and crying with them,” he says.
It’s important to turn suffering around — everything has two sides, good and bad, he noted. Buddhism helps us see the reality of it. While it’s not possible to take suffering away, one can learn how to live with it.
Buddhism has taught Watanabe to live hard. His policy is to say and do anything he wants.
“Buddhism for me is knowing myself, and through that, I am able to understand others’ points of view and then feel compassion,” Watanabe said. “This just might be my secret to living 80 years.
He says it’s true for everyone.