Capital punishment in Japan

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Tokyo Detention House, which houses one of Japan's seven execution chambers

Capital punishment is legal in Japan. The only crimes for which capital punishment is statutory are murder, treason, offences against the state (substantially treason, but applicable to non-Japanese nationals), and serious acts of violence resulting in death (including arson, unauthorised use of explosive, wilful derailment of trains, tampering with the water supply, hijacking, and piracy). The general rule that applies to this last category of capital offences is that of transferred malice: whether the target of the crime died or an innocent by-stander, the crime is still capital. However, no successful capital prosecutions of any of these crimes, with the sole exception of murder, have occurred since the end of World War II.

Between 1946 and 1993, Japanese courts sentenced 766 people to death (including a small number from China, South Korea and Indonesia), 608 of whom were executed. The vast majority of death sentences are imposed in cases of multiple murders.[1]


Beginning in about the 4th century, Japan became increasingly influenced by the Chinese judicial system, and gradually adopted a system of different punishments for different crimes, including the death penalty. However, beginning in the Nara period, cruel punishments and the death penalty were used less and less, likely as a result of the influence of Buddhist teachings, and the death penalty was phased out completely in the Heian period. The death penalty was not used for the next 300 years, until the Genpei War. During the following Kamakura period, capital punishment was widely used and methods of execution became increasingly cruel, and included burning, boiling and crucifixion, among many others. During the Muromachi period, even harsher methods of execution came into use, such as upside down crucifixion, impalement by spear, sawing, and dismemberment with oxen or carts. Even minor offences could be punished by death, and family members and even neighbours could be punished along with the offender. These harsh methods, and liberal use of the death penalty, continued throughout the Edo period and into the early Meiji period, but due to the influence of Confucianism, offences against masters and elders were increasingly punished much more harshly than offences against those of lower rank. Torture was used to extract confessions. In 1871, as the result of a major reform of the penal code, the number of crimes punishable by death was decreased and excessively cruel torture and flogging were abolished. In 1873, another revision resulted in a further reduction in the number of crimes punishable by death, and methods of execution were restricted to beheading or hanging.[2]


Sentencing guideline – Nagayama Standard

In Japan, the courts follow guidelines laid down in the trial of Norio Nagayama, a 19-year-old from a severely disadvantaged background, who committed four murders in 1968 and was finally hanged in 1997.

The supreme court of Japan, in imposing the death penalty, ruled that the death penalty may be imposed "inevitably" in consideration of the degree of criminal liability and balance of justice based on a nine-point set of criteria.[3] Though technically not a precedent, this guideline has been followed by all subsequent capital cases in Japan.[4] The nine criteria are as follows:

  1. Degree of viciousness
  2. Motive
  3. How the crime was committed; especially the manner in which the victim was killed.
  4. Outcome of the crime; especially the number of victims.
  5. Sentiments of the bereaved family members.
  6. Impact of the crime on Japanese society.
  7. Defendant's age (in Japan, someone is a minor until the age of 20).
  8. Defendant's previous criminal record.
  9. Degree of remorse shown by the defendant.

Stays of execution

According to Article 475 of the 'Japanese Code of Criminal Procedure', the death penalty must be executed within six months after the failure of the prisoner's final appeal upon an order from the Minister of Justice. However, the period requesting retrial or pardon is exempt from this regulation. Therefore, in practice, the typical stay on death row is between five and seven years; a quarter of the prisoners have been on death row for over ten years. For several, the stay has been over 30 years (Sadamichi Hirasawa died of natural causes at the age of 95, after awaiting execution for 32 years[5]).

Approval process

After the failure of the final appeal process to the Supreme Court of Japan, the entire records of trial are sent to the office of prosecution. Based on these records, the chief prosecutor of the office of prosecution compiles a report to the Justice Minister. This report is examined by the officer in the Criminal Investigation Bureau of the Justice Ministry for the possibility of pardon and/or retrial as well as any possible legal issues which might require consideration before the execution is approved. This officer is usually from the office of prosecution. Once satisfied, the officer will write an execution proposal, which has to go through the approval process of the Criminal Investigation Bureau, Parole Bureau and Correction Bureau. If the convict is certified to be mentally incapacitated during this process, the proposal is brought back to Criminal Investigation Bureau. The final approval is signed by the Minister of Justice. Once the final approval is signed, the execution will take place within about a week. By the regulation of penal code section 71, clause 2, the execution cannot take place on a national holiday, Saturday, Sunday, or between 31 December and 2 January. The date of execution is kept secret, even to the family of the condemned and the family of the victim(s).

Death row

Japanese death row inmates are imprisoned inside the detention centres of Sapporo, Sendai, Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima and Fukuoka (despite the city having a high court, Takamatsu Detention Centre is not equipped with an execution chamber. Consequently, executions administered by the Takamatsu High Court are carried out in the Osaka Detention Centre). Those on death row are not classified as prisoners by the Japanese justice system and the facilities in which they are incarcerated are not referred to as prisons. Inmates lack many of the rights afforded to other Japanese prisoners. The nature of the regime they live under is largely up to the director of the detention centre, but it is usually significantly harsher than normal Japanese prisons. Inmates are held in solitary confinement and are forbidden from communicating with their fellows. They are permitted two periods of exercise a week, are not allowed televisions and may only possess three books.[6] Prisoners are not allowed to exercise within their own cells.[7] Prison visits, both by family members and legal representatives, are infrequent and closely supervised.


Executions are carried out by hanging in a death chamber within the detention centre. When a death order has been issued, the condemned prisoner is informed in the morning of his/her execution. The condemned is given a choice of the last meal. The prisoner's family and legal representatives are not informed until afterwards. Since 7 December 2007, the authorities have been releasing the names, natures of crime and ages of executed prisoners.[8]

The method of hanging is a substantial drop, causing a quick death by neck fracture. It was not always thus. When Kanno Sugako was hanged in 1911: "...she was ordered to sit upright on the floor. Two thin cords were placed around her neck. The floor-board was removed. In twelve minutes she was dead."[9]

As of late March 2012, there were 135 people awaiting execution in Japan.[10][11] A total of nine convicted murderers were executed in 2007.[12] Three men were executed on 23 August 2007,[13] four men were executed on 25 December 2006,[14] and one execution was carried out in 2005.[15] and two in 2004.[1]

Two inmates were hanged in July 2010,[16] three in March 2012,[17] three in February 2013,[18] two in April 2013, one in September and two in December 2013.[19]

As of August 2014, the number of inmates on death row was 126. Of them, 89 are applying for their cases to be reopened and 25 are requesting amnesty.[20]

Death sentences for minors

Having signed both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which forbid any execution for crimes committed under the age of 18, Japan sets the minimum age for capital punishment at 18 (Juvenile Law § 51). Although death sentences for minors (defined in Japan as those under age 20) are rare, those who commit capital crimes at age 18 or 19 may be legally sentenced to death.[21]

Nine juvenile criminals have received death sentences that were finalised since 1966: Misao Katagiri, Kiyoshi Watanabe, Mitsuo Sasanuma, Fumio Matsuki, Sumio Kanno, Tsuneo Kuroiwa, Norio Nagayama, Teruhiko Seki and Takayuki Mizujiri. Seven of them have already been executed and Watanabe and Seki, both of whom killed four people when they were 19 years old, remain on death row awaiting execution.[22]

As of February 2013, the most recent juvenile death sentence was given to Takayuki Fukuda, passed by the Hiroshima High Court on 22 April 2008, and upheld by the Supreme Court on 20 February 2012.[23] A month after his 18th birthday he raped and killed a woman, along with murdering her baby.[24][25]

Public debate

Although the public has generally supported the death penalty, capital punishment is a contentious issue in Japan nonetheless. A 1999 government survey found that 79.3 percent of the public supported it. In 34 polls taken between 1953 and 1999, support for the death penalty has varied, although never having dropped below 50 percent. At a 2003 trial, a Tokyo prosecutor presented the court a petition with 76,000 signatures as part of his case for a death sentence.[1]

During the late 1980s, four acquittals of longtime death-row inmates after retrial greatly embarrassed the Ministry of Justice, whose officials sincerely believed that such mistakes by the system were almost impossible.[1] Between 1989 and 1993, four successive ministers of justice refused to authorise executions, which amounted to an informal moratorium. Until then, the groups campaigning to end capital punishment were marginal but they coalesced into a single umbrella organisation called Forum 90. Unlike in the U.S., where a state's governor can issue a pardon for any state crime and the president can pardon a federal crime, in Japan, the justice minister has to sign death warrants. It is not uncommon for a justice minister not to sign death warrants, some for political or religious convictions, others for personal dislike for signing death warrants. In theory, a justice minister cannot refuse to sign a death warrant due to personal belief, as that would amount to dereliction of duty. For example, Seiken Sugiura, Minister of Justice between October 2005 and September 2006, and a follower of Pureland Buddhism, publicly stated on 31 October 2005 that he would not sign death warrants. He said that "From the standpoint of the theory of civilizations, I believe that the general trend from a long-term perspective will be to move toward abolition." A few hours later, he retracted the statement, saying it represented his "feelings as an individual and (the comment) was not made in relation to the duties and responsibilities of a justice minister who must oversee the legal system". However, he never agreed to any executions as a minister of justice.

The British newspaper The Times claimed that the death penalty was effectively suspended on 17 September 2009 with the appointment of Keiko Chiba as Minister of Justice.[26] However, no official policy statement was made in this regard. Chiba only stated that "I will cautiously handle (the cases) based on the duties of the justice minister."[27] The Times' speculation was conclusively disproved when Chiba signed two death warrants and personally witnessed the execution.[28]


Supporters say that capital punishment is applied infrequently and only to those who have committed the most extreme of crimes—a single act of murder does not attract the capital punishment without additional aggravating circumstances such as rape or robbery. In the 1956 debate, Japanese serial killer Genzo Kurita, who engaged in rape and necrophilia, was cited by the Diet as an example of a murderer whose crimes were atrocious enough to merit death.[29] However, it is more due to the rarity of extreme crimes in Japanese society rather than an unwillingness of the authorities to carry out executions that has caused so few executions to take place.[1]

Since executions resumed in 1993, a rise in street crime during the 1990s, the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 and several high-profile murders[such as?] have hardened attitudes amongst the public and the judiciary. Since 1999, there have been a series of cases in which criminals sentenced to life imprisonment have been given the death penalty after prosecutors successfully appealed to High courts.

On 18 March 2009, a district court sentenced to death two men for the murder of Rie Isogai.[30] Fumiko Isogai, who lost her only child in this crime, launched a campaign to call for the death penalty on the three murderers in September 2007.[31] Within ten days, her petition was signed by 100,000 citizens.[32] She presented her petition for the death penalty with some 150,000 signatures to the District Public Prosecutors' Office of Nagoya on 23 October 2007.[33] About 318,000 citizens had signed her petition by December 2008.[31]

Although single murderers rarely face a death sentence in Japan, Takeshi Tsuchimoto, a criminal law scholar at Hakuoh University and former prosecutors of the Supreme Public Prosecutors' Office, expected that the recent trend toward harsher punishments, backed by the growing public support for capital punishment, would encourage the court to sentence Kanda and Hori to death.[32] Major national newspapers published editorials in support of this unorthodox judgment on the premise that capital punishment is retained.[34] The Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun wrote in editorials that the general public favored the judgment, and[34] the Nikkei lent his support to it.[34] The Sankei Shimbun aggressively evaluated the judgment with a phrase "a natural and down-to-earth judgment of great significance."[34][35] The Tokyo Shimbun expressed that capital punishment would be the inevitable sentence in consideration of the brutality of the murder and the pain that the victim's family felt.[34] They also noted, however, that it would be difficult for citizen judges to determine whether death penalty would be appropriate in this kind of case under the lay judge system, which will be started in May 2009.[34] Hiroshi Itakura, a criminal law scholar at Nihon University said that this decision could be a new criterion for capital punishment under the lay judge system.[30]


Amnesty International argues that the Japanese justice system tends to place great reliance on confessions, even ones obtained under duress. According to a 2005 Amnesty International report:

Most have been sentenced to death on the basis of confessions extracted under duress. The potential for miscarriages of justice is built into the system: confessions are typically extracted while suspects are held in daiyo kangoku, or "substitute prisons," for interrogation before they are charged. In practice these are police cells, where detainees can be held for up to 23 days after arrest, with no state-funded legal representation. They are typically interrogated for 12 hours a day: no lawyers can be present, no recordings are made, and they are put under constant pressure to confess. Once convicted, it is very difficult to obtain a re-trial and prisoners can remain under sentence of death for many years.[36]

Amnesty also reports allegations of abuse of suspects during these interrogations. There are reports of physical abuse, sleep deprivation and denial of food, water and use of a toilet.[36] One of its biggest criticisms is that inmates usually remain for years (and sometimes decades) on death row without ever actually being informed of the date of their execution prior to the date itself, so inmates suffer due to the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not any given day will be their last. According to Amnesty International, the intense and prolonged stress means many inmates on death row have poor mental health, suffering from the so-called death row phenomenon. The failure to give advanced notice of executions has been stated by the United Nations Human Rights Committee to be incompatible with articles 2, 7, 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[5]

South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre claims that the issueance of death warrants by the Ministry of Justice may be politically motivated. In 1997, Norio Nagayama, a prisoner who committed the first of several murders as a juvenile was executed during the sentencing phase of "Sakakibara Seito" for the Kobe child murders, also resulting in a high-profile juvenile murder trial – an attempt, according to South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, to show that the harshest punishment could be administered to juveniles.[5] According to The New York Times, the execution of Tsutomu Miyazaki after the Akihabara massacre was claimed to be a similar case.[37]

The Japanese Federation of Bar Associations also says that capital punishment should be abolished in Japan.[38]

Executions since 1993

     Condemned was female (4 executed since 1950[39])

Inmate Age Date Place Crime victim(s) Minister
Seikichi Kondo 55 26 March 1993 Sendai Multiple murders 2 Masaharu Gotoda
Shujiro Tachikawa 62 Osaka Multiple murders 2
Tetsuo Kawanaka 48 Osaka Multiple murders 3
Tadao Kojima 61 26 November 1993 Sapporo Multiple murders 3 Akira Mikazuki
Yukio Seki 47 Tokyo Single murder 1
Hideo Deguchi 70 Osaka Multiple murders 2
Toru Sakaguchi 56 Osaka
Yukio Ajima 44 1 December 1994 Tokyo Multiple murders 3 Isao Maeda
Kazumi Sasaki 66 Sendai Multiple murders* 2
Eiji Fujioka 40 26 May 1995 Osaka Multiple murders 2
Fusao Suda 54 Tokyo Single murder 1
Shigeho Tanaka 69 Tokyo Single murder 1
Shuji Kimura 45 21 December 1995 Nagoya Single murder 1 Hiroshi Miyazawa
Naoto Hirata 63 Fukuoka Multiple murders 2
Tokujirou Shinohara 68 Tokyo Multiple murders* 2
Yoshiaki Sugimto 49 11 July 1996 Fukuoka Single murder 1 Ritsuko Nagata
Kazumi Yokoyama 43 Fukuoka
Mikio Ishida 48 Tokyo Multiple murders 2
Yoshihito Imai 55 20 December 1996 Tokyo Multiple murders 3 Isao Matsuura
Mitsunari Hirata 60 Tokyo Multiple murders 2
Satoru Noguchi 50 Tokyo
Yasumasa Hidaka 54 1 August 1997 Sapporo Multiple murders 6
Nobuko Hidaka 51 Sapporo
Hideki Kanda 43 Tokyo Multiple murders 3
Norio Nagayama 48 Tokyo Multiple murders 4
Masahiro Muratake 54 25 June 1998 Fukuoka Multiple murders 3 Kokichi Shimoinaba
Yukihisa Takeyasu 66 Fukuoka Multiple murders* 1
Shinji Shimazu 66 Tokyo Multiple murders* 1
Masamichi Ida 56 19 November 1998 Nagoya Multiple murders 3 Shozaburo Nakamura
Tatsuaki Nishio 61 Nagoya Single murder 1
Akira Tsuda 59 Hiroshima Single murder 1
Masashi Satou 62 10 September 1999 Tokyo Multiple murders* 1 Takao Jinnouchi
Katsutoshi Takada 61 Sendai Multiple murders* 1
Tetsuyuki Morikawa 69 Fukuoka Multiple murders* 2
Teruo Ono 62 17 December 1999 Fukuoka Multiple murders* 1 Hideo Usui
Kazuo Sagawa 48 Tokyo Multiple murders 2
Kiyotaka Katsuta 52 30 November 2000 Nagoya Multiple murders 8 Okiharu Yasuoka
Takashi Miyawaki 57 Nagoya Multiple murders 3
Kunikatsu Oishi 55 Fukuoka Multiple murders 3
Toshihiko Hasegawa 51 27 December 2001 Nagoya Multiple murders 3 Mayumi Moriyama
Koujirou Asakura 66 Tokyo Multiple murders 5
Ryuya Haruta 36 18 September 2002 Fukuoka Single murder 1
Yoshiteru Hamada 51 Nagoya Multiple murders* 3
Sinji Mukai 42 12 September 2003 Osaka Multiple murders 3
Sueo Shimazaki 59 14 September 2004 Fukuoka Multiple murders 3 Daizo Nozawa
Mamoru Takuma 40 Osaka Multiple murders 8
Susumu Kitagawa 58 16 September 2005 Osaka Multiple murders 2 Chieko Nono
Hiroaki Hidaka 44 25 December 2006 Hiroshima Multiple murders 4 Jinen Nagase
Yoshimitsu Akiyama 77 Tokyo Single murder 1
Yoshio Fujinami 65 Tokyo Multiple murders 2
Michio Fukuoka 64 Osaka Multiple murders 3
Yoshikatsu Oda 59 27 April 2007 Fukuoka Multiple murders 2
Masahiro Tanaka 42 Tokyo Multiple murders 4
Kosaku Nada 56 Osaka Multiple murders 2
Hifumi Takezawa 69 23 August 2007 Tokyo Multiple murders 3
Kozo Segawa 60 Nagoya Multiple murders 2
Yoshio Iwamoto 62 Tokyo Multiple murders 2
Seiha Fujima 47 7 December 2007 Tokyo Multiple murders 5 Kunio Hatoyama
Hiroki Fukawa 42 Tokyo Multiple murders 2
Noboru Ikemoto 75 Osaka Multiple murders 3
Masahiko Matsubara 63 1 February 2008 Osaka Multiple murders 2
Takashi Mochida 65 Tokyo Multiple murders* 1
Keishi Nago 37 Fukuoka Multiple murders 2
Kaoru Okashita 61 10 April 2008 Tokyo Multiple murders 2
Masahito Sakamoto 41 Tokyo Single murder 1
Katsuyoshi Nakamoto 64 Osaka Multiple murders 2
Masaharu Nakamura 61 Osaka Multiple murders 2
Tsutomu Miyazaki 45 17 June 2008 Tokyo Multiple murders 4
Yoshio Yamasaki 73 Osaka Multiple murders 2
Shinji Mutsuda 37 Tokyo Multiple murders 2
Yoshiyuki Mantani 68 11 September 2008 Osaka Multiple murders* 1 Okiharu Yasuoka
Mineteru Yamamoto 68 Osaka Multiple murders 2
Isamu Hirano 61 Tokyo Multiple murders* 2
Michitoshi Kuma 70 28 October 2008 Fukuoka Multiple murders 2 Eisuke Mori
Masahiro Takashio 55 Sendai Multiple murders 2
Yukinari Kawamura 44 28 January 2009 Nagoya Multiple murders 2
Tetsuya Sato 39 Nagoya
Shojiro Nishimoto 32 Tokyo Multiple murders 4
Tadashi Makino 58 Fukuoka Multiple murders* 1
Hiroshi Maeue 40 28 July 2009 Osaka Multiple murders 3
Yukio Yamaji 25 Osaka Multiple murders* 2
Chen Detong 41 Tokyo Multiple murders 3
Kazuo Shinozawa 59 28 July 2010 Tokyo Multiple murders 6 Keiko Chiba
Hidenori Ogata 33 Tokyo Multiple murders 2
Yasuaki Uwabe 48 29 March 2012 Hiroshima Multiple murders 5 Toshio Ogawa
Tomoyuki Furusawa 46 Tokyo Multiple murders 3
Yasutoshi Matsuda 44 Fukuoka Multiple murders 2
Junya Hattori 40 3 August 2012 Tokyo Single murder 1 Makoto Taki
Kyozo Matsumura 31 Osaka Multiple murders 2
Sachiko Eto 65 27 September 2012 Sendai Multiple murders 6
Yukinori Matsuda 39 Fukuoka Multiple murders 2
Masahiro Kanagawa 29 21 February 2013 Tokyo Multiple murders 2 Sadakazu Tanigaki
Keiki Kano 62 Nagoya Multiple murders* 1
Kaoru Kobayashi 44 Osaka Single murder 1
Katsuji Hamasaki 64 26 April 2013 Tokyo Multiple murders 2
Yoshihide Miyagi 56 Tokyo
Tokuhisa Kumagai 73 12 September 2013 Tokyo Single murder 1
Mitsuo Fujishima 55 12 December 2013 Tokyo Multiple murders 2
Ryoji Kagayama 63 Osaka Multiple murders 2
Masanori Kawasaki 68 26 June 2014 Osaka Multiple murders 3
Mitsuhiro Kobayashi 56 29 August 2014 Sendai Multiple murders 5
Tsutomu Takamizawa 59 Tokyo Multiple murders 3
Tsukasa Kanda 44 25 June 2015 Nagoya Single murder 1 Yōko Kamikawa
The Number of Executed People in Japan since 1993
1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
7 2 6 6 4 6 5 3 2 2 1 2 1 4
2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
9 15 7 2 0 7 8 3 1

Note : Inmates noted with a * were sentenced to death for murder(s) committed while on parole for another murder[citation needed]

See also


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