19th century execution
Japan has the death penalty. The Penal Code stipulates that death must be “executed by hanging,” which is carried out in one of seven detention centers in Japan. Death row inmates are brought from their cell blindfolded and hanged with their knees tied so there is no struggling when the inmate drops through a trap door to his death.

The executions are done secretly without the knowledge of inmate’s family members or lawyers to prevent emotional scenes and last minute appeals. No public witnesses are present when the execution takes place. Many bodies are unclaimed and disposed of by the prison because the executed prisoners have been disowned by their families.

The criterial for execution seems to be: committing cruel murder for selfish reasons and not expressing any remorse or apologizing to the family. It doesn’t hurt to have killed more than one person. Payments of large amounts of money are sometimes made to defendants of families of victims as a way of expressing remorse.

The current style of trapdoor hanging employed in Japan dates back to 1873. Decapitation by sword has been a traditional punishment. Hanging was chosen on the recommendation of a French adviser of the Meiji government because it was deemed more humane and easier on families to give them a body with an attached head.

The Justice Ministry has refused to disclose how it makes decisions to go ahead with executions. No pardons are allowed. According to the Criminal Procedures Code executions are supposed to be carried out within six months after a death sentence is finalized.

A large majority of Japan’s population supports capital punishment. A 2010 government survey found that 86 percent of respondents favored state executions for the worst crimes. Only 5.7 percent said the death penalty should be abolished. “Any debate should take into account the lifelong suffering that the victims’ families must bear,” Isao Okamura, whose wife was murdered over a work dispute in 1997, told NHK. Kanae Doi, a lawyer who heads Human Rights Watch, however said “the death penalty should not be enforced by a majority opinion.” Another survey found that 63 percent of Japanese would chose the death penalty for serious crimes if serving as a lay judge.

Good Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article on Capital Punishment in Japan Wikipedia ; Death Penalty Scrapped “? (2009) ; Why Japan Still Has the Death Penalty (2005) ; 2009 Amnesty International Report on Japan’s Execution of Mnta;y Ill Prisoners (2009) ; Prisons in Japan, Firsthand Blog Report ; U.S. Embassy Report on Fuchu Prison ; Torture in Japanese Prisons?


In Japan, Brutality of the Crime Often Weighs More Heavily than the Offender's Age in Death Sentence Cases

On the case of a defendant who committed a double murder shortly after turning 18 and was given the death penalty, Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The Supreme court rejected an appeal by the defendant in a case in which a mother and her baby girl were killed in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in 1999. The defendant strangled a 23-year-old housewife in an apartment after entering by claiming to be a drainage pipe inspector. He also killed the woman's 11-month-old girl who was crying nearby. The ruling described the defendant's acts as "cruel, atrocious and inhumane." Even considering his age and the possibility of his rehabilitation, the top court chose the ultimate penalty as it concluded "his criminal responsibility was too heavy." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 21, 2012]

The decision, it can be said, clarified the court's stance of applying the death penalty to heinous crimes without giving undue consideration to the age of a defendant. The Juvenile Law, which attaches importance to sound fostering and protection of minors, bans capital punishment for persons younger than 18. Even concerning older teens aged 18 and 19, judges generally tend to commute their sentences by giving weight to the fact that they are minors.

Typical examples are decisions in this case at district and high courts in 2000 and 2002, respectively. They gave the defendant a life sentence after concluding that "the possibility of the defendant's rehabilitation cannot be ruled out." But the top court sent the case back to the Hiroshima High Court, arguing the defendant's age "cannot be a decisive factor in deciding not to apply the death penalty." The high court handed down the death sentence in April 2008, and the decision was endorsed by the top court. The top court's decision indicates its intention to halt cruel acts by minors by imposing severe punishments.

People Sentenced to Death in Japan

Japan ended a moratorium on the death penalty in 1993. As of July 2003, 46 people had been executed. and 56 were on death row. Only a few executions are carried out each year. Five were hanged in 1999, three in 2000. Most are multiple murderers. In December 2001, two men were hanged. One had killed five members of a family in 1983. Another killed three people between 1970 and 1983 to collect insurance money.

Only one man was hanged in 2005 and two in 2004. In December 2005, two men in their 70s convicted of murders in the 1975 and 1981 were hanged. In December 2007, three death row inmates were hung, and for the first time their names were given. Three more were hung in February 2008 and three more, including, the serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, were hanged in June 2008.

As of August 2010, 107 people were on death row in Japan. From 2000 to 2009, Japan sentenced 112 people to death and executed 46. As of early 2008 there were 104 people on death row, compared to 78 people 2005 and 56 in 2003. In 2010, 14 people were sentenced to death, the lowest total in 11 years. Three were sentenced by lay judges. A record high 44 death sentences were given in 2006. A record high of 1,670 people were serving life sentences in 2007.

Fifteen death row prisoners executed in 2008, up from 10 in 2007. They waited an average of four years in one month down from eight years the average between 1998 and 2007.

See Death Penalty and the Wrong Guy, Justice System

In April 2008 a death sentence as given to a man who committed a rape and double murder when he was a minor. The man raped and killed a woman and strangled the woman’s baby daughter. In Japan there have been nine other cases of minors being sentenced to death. All were sentenced for murder; seven were 19; two were 18. Three murdered four people each; one murdered three, one murdered two; a and three murdered one person. One of the latter killed a policeman, took his gun and injured 16 others.

Prisoners Executed in Japan in 2012

Seven people were executed in Japan in 2012. In September 2012, Jiji Press reported: “The Justice Ministry said two inmates on death row have been executed, including a woman. Sachiko Eto, 65 — a faith healer who murdered six of her followers — was the first woman to be put to death in Japan in 15 years and the fourth since 1950. Also executed was Yukinori Matsuda, 39, who was found guilty of a double murder and robbery. [Source: Jiji Press, September 28. 2012]

According to a Supreme Court conviction handing down the death penalty in 2008, Eto beat and kicked her followers in what she claimed was an attempt to rid them of evil spirits. This led to the death of six people and serious injury for another in Sukagawa, Fukushima Prefecture, from December 1994 to June 1995. In October 2003, Matsuda stabbed a former butcher he was indebted to as well as his female housemate to death, then robbed them of 80,000 yen. The murders took place in the town of Matsubase, now the city of Uki, in Kumamoto Prefecture. Nobuko Hidaka, the last woman to be put to death in Japan, was executed in 1997 for multiple life insurance-related murders.

In August 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Two death-row inmates were executed in detention houses in Tokyo and Osaka. According to the Justice Ministry, the first was Junya Hattori, 40, who killed a female junior college student in Mishima, Shizuoka Prefecture, in 2002. The other was Kyozo Matsumura, 31, who killed two relatives in Kyoto and Kanagawa prefectures in 2007. [Source: The Yomiuri Shimbun, August 4, 2012]

In January 2002, Hattori forced a junior college student, then 19, into a car while she was heading home and raped her. To prevent the crime from being found, he poured kerosene on her body, ignited it and burned her to death. The Numazu branch of the Shizuoka District Court sentenced Hattori to an indefinite prison term. But in the second-stage trial, the Tokyo High Court sentenced him to death in March 2005, even though there was only one victim, pointing out that his method of killing the victim was extremely horrific. Matsumura killed his aunt, then 57, in January 2007 in Nagaokakyo, Kyoto Prefecture, and stole about 20,000 yen in cash. A week later, he killed his granduncle, then 72, in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, and took about 3,000 yen in cash.

In March 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The Justice Ministry announced that three death-row murder convicts were executed at the detention houses where they had been held in Tokyo, Hiroshima and Fukuoka, the first executions since two inmates were executed 20 months ago on July 28, 2010. The three death-row convicts were Yasuaki Uwabe, 48; Tomoyuki Furusawa, 46; and Yasutoshi Matsuda, 44. They were executed at the Tokyo, Hiroshima and Fukuoka detention houses, respectively. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 30, 2012]

It was the second time for executions to be carried out under a government led by the Democratic Party of Japan. After the Democratic Party of Japan took power, the government was careful in implementing executions and the number of executions drastically diminished. Explaining why he ordered them, Justice Minister Toshio Ogawa said, "Punitive power belongs to the people. In trials held under the lay judge system that was introduced to reflect their opinions, executions have been supported. I thought I should perform this duty even though some people oppose [capital punishment].”

Uwabe went on a homicidal rampage at JR Shimonoseki Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture in September 1999. He drove a rental car into the station building, hitting some people with the vehicle and attacking others with a knife. He killed five people and injured 10. Furusawa sneaked into his wife's parents' condominium in Tsuzuki Ward, Yokohama, in July 2002 to abduct his wife, who wanted to divorce him. In addition to the kidnapping, he stabbed three people to death: his wife's father, 71; her mother, 63; and her 12-year-old son from a previous marriage. Matsuda killed a 53-year-old female bar operator in November 2001 and an 82-year-old woman who operated a general store the next month, both in Miyazaki Prefecture. He also stole a total of about 650,000 yen from them.

No Executions in 2011 for First time in 19 Years

There were no execution in 2011 for the first time in 19 years. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “No executions have been carried out in Japan since July 2010. There has been at least one execution per year since 1993 when then Justice Minister Masaharu Gotoda approved of the first execution in more than three years. Under the administration of the Democratic Party of Japan, however, there has been a succession of justice ministers holding cautious stances toward execution, which put a halt to executions. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 29, 2011]

The Criminal Procedure Code requires executions be ordered by the justice minister within six months of the finalization of capital punishment. However, the justice minister has the authority to decide on the execution period and the convicts to be executed. Former Justice Minister Keiko Chiba ordered an execution on July 28, 2010, about 10 months after the DPJ came to power. However, the three subsequent justice ministers--Yoshihiko Sengoku, Satsuki Eda and Hideo Hiraoka, who assumed the post this year--did not order an execution.

Death-Row Inmates Reach Post-War Peak

In December 2012, The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The number of death-row inmates is at its highest since 1949, at 133 as of the end of the year, according to the Justice Ministry. In 2012, executions were resumed for the first time in about one year and eight months, with sentences being carried out for seven death-row inmates. However, as death sentences were finalized for nine people this year, the number of convicts awaiting execution increased by two from last year. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 31, 2012]

Among the nine whose death sentences were finalized this year were Takayuki Otsuki, 31, who was convicted of killing a 23-year-old woman and her 11-month-old daughter in Hikari, Yamaguchi Prefecture, and Masanori Kawasaki, 66, convicted of killing his sister-in-law and her two granddaughters in Sakaide, Kagawa Prefecture.

With the launch of the Liberal Democratic Party-led administration, former LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki was named as the new justice minister. Tanigaki commented at a press conference after a Cabinet meeting Friday, "Executions are not carried out in line with the Criminal Procedure Code, which stipulates death-row inmates should be executed within six months after the sentence is finalized." "I'd like to carefully review the system. It's of utmost importance to make a judgment in accordance with the original intent of the system," he added.

Criticism of Japan’s Death Penalty

Of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, only the United States and Japan use capital punishment. Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times, “Japan has long been criticized by human rights activists for its capital punishment system. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors civil and political rights, has urged Japan to consider abolishing the death penalty, citing the large number of crimes that entail the death sentence, the lack of pardoning, the solitary confinement of inmates and executions at advanced ages and despite signs of mental illness.” [Source: By Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, August 27, 2010]

“Japan also has a 99 percent conviction rate, a figure critics attribute to widespread use of forced confessions. A series of false convictions have surfaced in recent months, including one of a 63-year-old man who had served 17 years of a life sentence for the murder of a 4-year-old girl. He was released after prosecutors admitted that his confession was a fabrication made under duress and DNA tests showed he was innocent. Critics say there is a high possibility that some of those on death row are innocent.”

“Human rights activists criticize the conditions in which the inmates are made to await their death,” Tabuchi wrote. “They are held in solitary confinement in a cell about 50 square feet, which they leave only to exercise and bathe, both alone. They can request Japanese chess sets, but they must play alone. They are able to purchase newspapers and books, though the prison censors some of the content; articles about last month’s executions were blacked out in newspapers given to death row inmates. Relatives can visit, but friends cannot.

Long Waits for Execution Day in Japan

Prisoners on death row have to wait a long time in jail. They can remain on death row as long as 40 years, though executions over the past decade have occurred on average after about 5 years and 11 months on death row, according to the public broadcast channel NHK. In the early 2000s the average was 7½ years. Norio Nagayama, who shot and killed three people in 1968, wasn't executed until 1997. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the world's longest stay on death row was 39 years by Sadamich Hirasawa (1893-1987), who sentenced to death in 1948 for poisoning 12 bank employees with potassium cyanide to steal $403 and died in prison of natural causes at the age of 94.

The longest serving inmate in October 2008 had been on death row for 37 years and 10 months. Eight others had been on death row for 20 years or more. It is not usual for prisoners to die of illness or disease before their execution day. In 2003, one 86-year-old prisoner died of chronic renal failure after being on death row for 27 years.

Menda said, “Whenever I heard the footsteps of detention center officers approaching, I’d clench my teeth and listen so that I’d known which cell they were stopping at. I felt like I was tied up and couldn’t move until I knew it wasn’t me they were coming for.”

One reason executions take so log to happen is to give the inmates ample time to prepare themselves mentally and spiritually for their deaths. Many death row inmates who have been disowned by their families are adopted by Christians, who look after their interests.

Execution orders are issued by the Minister of Justice. Requests for retrials, appeals, the way different justice ministers handle death cases, and worries about condemning an innocent men to death are also reasons why executions are delayed. These days there seems to be more pressure to carry out executions quicker. In September 2008, one inmate was executed only two years and eight months after his trial for murder and robbery.

By 2009 the waits on death row were reduced to two to three years after the sentences were finalized and the appeal process was over. Up until 2007, the wait was around 10 years.

Life on Death Row in Japan

Prisoners on death row spend much of their time in solitary confinement in cells with no televisions. They are not allowed to talk to other prisoners and are given only two exercise sessions outside their cells each week. They can only own three books. Radio is allowed but they have no say over the station. Their encounters with the outside world are limited to brief meetings with family members and lawyers. A forth of death row inmates don’t receive any visitors.

Death-row prisoners are housed in cells that cover four tatami mats. There is a toilet and a washstand before a screen in the back of the room. The inmates wake up at 7:00am and got to bed at 9:00pm and are not required to do labor. Letters smuggled out by one prisoner contained complaints that the cells were frigid in the winter and suffocating hot in the summer and mealtime consisting of eating smelly rice next to the toilet. Inmates are not allowed to exercise in their cells out of concern about making too much noise. Some cells with no air conditioning are so hot in the summer the floor is covered in sweat.

Menda told the Los Angeles Times, "We could not move about the cell. We could not lean against a wall. We could not lie down.” He said many endure the world of four walls and a small window by taking sleeping pills provided by their families...We have to sleep under a bright light. I asked for an eye mask but it was turned down as it covered our face. No wonder not a few people take sleeping pills.” Some cells have security cameras on the ceiling to deter suicides.

Inmates are allowed to play go and shogi and watch videos a couple times a month. They are allowed to write on a piece of paper and eat sweets and fruit chosen from list of available products, which they have to pay for. Among the items available are canned crab, bean jam, pancakes, peaches and sweet-bean-filled rice cakes.

Death-row inmates are generally housed together in same part of the prison. At one time they were allowed to get together and play baseball, recite tanka poems and do calligraphy but that practice was stopped out of concerns of the inmates making trouble. These day great care is taken in scheduling their movements so they don’t pass one another.

Japan Opens Its Execution Chamber

In July 2010, Justice minister, Keiko Chiba, who had traditionally opposed the death penalty, made headlines when she approved — and attended — the hangings of two inmates convicted of murder, saying she was carrying out her duties as justice minister. A few weeks later she opened the execution chambers to the media and ordered that journalists be given a tour of the facilities in part to stir debate over the practice. “I called for proper disclosure in the hope that it spurs debate over the death penalty and criminal sentencing,” Ms. Chiba, who opposes the death penalty, said at a news conference. [Source: By Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, August 27, 2010]

Foreign news outlets were excluded from the visit. According to accounts in local news outlets, journalists were taken to the execution site in a bus with closed curtains, because its exact location is kept secret. The journalists were led through the chambers, one by one. Satoshi Tomiyama, a Justice Ministry official who later briefed the foreign news outlets said that officers involved with executions take the utmost care to treat death row inmates fairly and humanely.

Kanae Doi, a lawyer who heads Human Rights Watch Japan, said she welcomed Japan’s steps toward more transparency. But added, “Apart from Japan and the United States, the other countries in the world that carry out capital punishment are those accused of other grave human rights violations,” Ms. Doi said. “Japan should be ashamed to be on that list.”

Execution Facilities in Japan

The execution facilities consist of a chapel, or prayer room, with a Buddhist altar; a small room, also with a Buddha statue, where a prison warden officially orders the execution; the execution room, with a pulley and rings for the rope and a trapdoor where the condemned inmate stands; and the viewing room where officials witness the hanging. In the small room the Buddha statues can be switched with an altar of the indigenous Japanese Shinto religion for followers of that faith, he said. For Christians, the prison provides a wooden cross.

Eichiro Matsumoto, of the Yomiuri Shimbun, a member of the media allowed to see an execution room at the Tokyo Detention Center in Katsushika Ward, Tokyo said the room was clean and neat and had wood paneled walls and mauve-colored carpet and almost looks like a room in a ryokan except for the rings and pulleys for the rope and the trapdoor. The trapdoor at the Tokyo Detention Center is 1.1 metes square and bordered with red tape. The facility has two floors. When the trap door opens the inmate drops into an open area below made of bare concrete. [Source: Eichiro Matsumoto, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 28, 2010]

Execution Day in Japan

Most execution take place in the spring or at the end of the year. They are not carried out on weekends, national holidays and around the New Year. The Justice Ministry quoted a officer who carries out executions. Executions “are carried out somberly, and the tension is enough to make my hand shake,” he quoted the warden as saying.

When the execution day arrives, prisoners are often given no advance warning and executed about an hour after they are told they going to die. Inmates on death row are not told when they will be executed until the last minute, Japanese officials say, to prevent panic among inmates — and their family members and lawyers are informed only afterward, as are the news media. In the past they were told several days before their death and allowed to meet family members but that practice was changed after several prisoners committed suicide.

In some cases the inmates are given breakfast as usual and are informed that there time has come. They are given a few minutes to straighten up their cells, have a smoke, write a final letter and receive their last rights before being taken away to the death chamber. In other cases they are simply taken from their cells and informed of their execution in a waiting room, where Japanese confectionaries, fruit and hot tea are served. The prisoner is given the option of consulting with a chaplain. Family members are notified by phone after the execution has occurred and are given 24 hours to collect the body.

Menda told the New York Times of the anxiety he felt during the execution season: “Between 8 and 8:30 in the morning was the most critical time, because that was generally when prisoners were notified. Once you get past that moment, life resumes until the next day. But during these minutes, things get so quiet the only sound you can hear is the feet of the wardens...You begin to feel the most terrible anxiety, because you don’t know if they are going to stop in front of your cell. It is impossible to express how awful a feeling this was. I would have shivers down my spine. It as absolutely unbearable.” On prisoners being taken away Menda told the Los Angeles Times, “Of course, some people don’t want to die, They shout. And the guards would try to cover their mouths and tie their hands with towels and take them away.”

After a death row inmate is notified of his fate he is first taken to a prayer room with a Buddhist altar where the condemned is read his last rites, a senior prison official listens to his last words and the inmate is allowed to speak with a prison chaplain, usually a a Buddhist priest or Christian pastor. After leaving the prayer room the inmate walks down the corridor to an anterior chamber where the prison warden officially declare that the execution will be carried out. At the Tokyo facility a gold Buddhist statues stand opposite the room’s door. The anterior chamber is separated from the execution chamber by a bright blue curtains. On the side of the execution chamber is a viewing area, where the prison warden, prosecutors and other officials watch the execution.

The whole thing is conducted secretly. There are no last meals and no information is publically released — in accordance with rules established in 1908. Human rights groups have complained that the conditions are inhumane. Few Japanese get riled up over the issue.

Executions in Japan

The room where executions take place has been described as clean and simple. There is a small wooden statute of Buddha and a cross on an altar in a small room behind a curtain to allow the condemned one last chance to pray and take a sip of sake. Hanging from the ceiling is a pulley-like system to which a three-centimeter-thick rope is attached. The floor is covered by with a lilac-colored carpet. A trapdoor, about a meter square, in the floor opens to a four meter drop. The trapdoor is activated in an adjacent room by a series of buttons pressed by several people so that no one person has the burden of causing the death single-handedly.

The inmate is handcuffed and blindfolded before entering the execution room. Either they are hooded or blindfolded and the hands and legs are tied with plastic chord. Moments before his execution he is read the Hannya Shingyo (“Wisdom Sutra”) by the chaplain, a Buddhist priest. Inside the execution room the inmate is made to stand on the trapdoor. After this a rope is placed around the inmate’s neck. The noose is placed around the neck with knot behind the left ear. A few seconds after the rope is placed around his neck the trapdoor opens with a loud sound. A police officer is in charge of keeping the rope from swinging due to the downward impact of the prisoner on the gallows.

Police officers at the prison are selected to press the three to five red buttons connected to the trapdoor below the gallows. One retired officer who was selected to press a button told the Daily Yomiuri, that a red light came on and someone called out “Push the buttons.” “I felt I heard the sound of a trapdoor opening,” he said. “But I don’t know for sure. When I realized I had fulfilled by duties, I felt less tense, but I soon began to feel weak.”

At the Tokyo facility there are three buttons, pushed simultaneously by three prison officers when the order to carry out the execution is given, but only one actually opens the trap door. This is done so that officers do not know which one pushed the button that activated the trap door, and they never find out which one released the trapdoor. The officers can not see inmate when they push the buttons. The officers are given a bonus of about $230 every time they attend an execution.

The distance a person falls when the trapdoor opens is calculated according to weight, height and physique of the inmate. Inmates typically drop between 1.2 and 1.8 meters. The long drop is generally 1.5 to 2.5 meters. A drop of this distance should kill the inmate by breaking his neck. If the drop is too short the inmate can be strangled to death, which takes longer than neck fracture and is more painful. If the drop is too long decapitation may occur.

When the condemned person’s neck snaps due to the impact of the fall breathing stops immediately but the heart continues beating for some time, usually around 15 minutes. A doctor who witnessed several execution said, “The condemned person is rendered unconscious the moment of hanging and there can presumably be no time of feeling any pain.” A doctor climbs a step ladder and listens to the prisoner’s heartbeat with a stethoscope. When the heart is stopped the prisoner is declared dead.

The body is then taken down and dressed in white. There are no visible injuries aside form bruising around the neck. The chaplain performs a simple funeral service at the mortuary in the prison and the prisoners in cremated. A small ossuary in one prison houses the ashes and bone of inmates whose remains were refused by their families.

Once the execution take place he Justice Ministry released the name and crime of the inmate executed.

Image Sources: Visualizing Culture, MIT Education, YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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