Developments in recent years

Apart from the USA, Japan is the only highly developed industrialized democratic country that still retains the death penalty.

Japan discloses little about death sentences that have been pronounced and carried out. Therefore, it is not possible to make an exact statement about the number of people currently sentenced to death. In 2017, the human rights organization Amnesty International estimated that a total of 124 inmates were on Japanese death row, at least four of whom had been executed.

In July 2018, a group execution was carried out for the first time in over 100 years: Seven followers as well as the founder of the Aum sect were hanged on July 6. A total of 15 executions were officially announced by the Japanese government for 2018, and three for 2019.

Court and indictment proceedings

There are 18 offenses for which Japanese criminal law can impose the death penalty. Thus, in addition to murder, robbery, rape and arson resulting in death are listed. Terrorist offenses also carry a death sentence.

The death penalty may not be imposed on persons who were under 18 years of age at the time of the crime. In the case of pregnant women and the mentally ill, execution of the death sentence is suspended until the woman has given birth or the mentally ill person has recovered.

However, there is no applied mechanism that would verify any mental illness of the death row inmates. Also, convictions and executions of mentally disabled people have already been reported: For example, the university group of Amnesty International in Bochum is campaigning for Matsumoto Kenji, who was sentenced in 1993. With an IQ of 60, Matsumoto was already considered mentally disabled at the time of the crime and had never understood what he was being accused of in the first place.

In 2009, Japan introduced a lay judge system for trials of serious crimes, including all possible death penalty cases: These cases are tried before a panel of judges consisting of three professional judges and six lay judges. In the event of final confirmation of a death sentence by the Supreme Court, there is the possibility of retrial. However, the hurdles for this are so high that such cases are in the single digits. Pardons are also extremely rare.

Execution orders are reviewed by the cabinet. This is usually done during breaks in the session, possibly to avoid criticism and public debate.

Execution then requires the approval of the minister of justice. The conviction rate for an indictment is well over 90%. The Japanese population is overwhelmingly in favor of the death penalty. Critics believe that this is due to a lack of engagement with the issue. The general population, they say, is unaware of the conditions under which death row inmates are held, their legal “options” to successfully challenge the sentence, and so on.

After an arrest, prisoners are initially held incommunicado for 23 days. During this time, they have no access to lawyers, other family members, or counselors. The goal of the police officers is to force confessions, which form the basis for any trial.

Execution procedure and method

Prisoners usually do not learn that the time of their execution has arrived until the morning of their execution day. Relatives and lawyers are usually not informed until after the sentence has been carried out.

Executions in Japan are not announced in advance to the public or to those affected. Prisoners usually learn of their execution only an hour before it takes place. Executions are carried out by hanging. The condemned is led into a room with a trap door, which is triggered from the next room by pressing a button. Three buttons are pressed simultaneously by three prison employees, but only one of them actually triggers the opening of the trap door. Participation in an execution is part of the guards’ employment contract. They are not allowed to evade the execution if they have been assigned to do so. Apart from the prison staff, only a clergyman is present.

There are seven execution chambers in Japan, located in correctional facilities in the cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Sapporo, Fukuoka, and Sendai.

The conditions of detention in Japan’s death prisons have repeatedly been severely criticized by human rights organizations. The condemned are denied all contact with the outside world as well as with fellow prisoners. They are not allowed to walk around or sleep freely in their video-monitored cells during the day. All day, the prisoners must remain in the same position, kneeling or sitting. Visitation is permitted, if at all, only by immediate family members under observation.

Sources and further information:

“When the State Kills: Death Penalty in Japan,” Amnesty International 2020 Report ; The Death Penalty Project; Mc Curry, Justin:“Japan executes two prisoners amid protests,” The Guardian, March 26, 2016;“Japan: Two men executed by hanging,” News of the Initiative Against the Death Penalty, Nov. 12.2016;129 inmates on death row in Japan at end of 2016,” Japan Today, Jan. 1, 2017;“Japan: Two hanged as secretive executions continue,” Amnesty International, Dec. 19, 2017;“Death Sentences and Executions 2018,” Amnesty International’s 2018 Annual Report; Amnesty International’s 2019 Annual Report on the Death Penalty.

As of July 2020