- Hidden death penalty in Japan
La peine de
mort cachée du Japon [en français]
– We have a death penalty system in Japan.
– There are 7 detention centers with special chambers for executions. Since 1993, 39 prisoners have been executed.
– As of December 31, 2000, there were 53 prisoners whose death sentences had been finalized.
– They cannot communicate with their friends or journalists, only with
their family members. Sometimes they are even prohibited from meeting
with or writing to their family members.
– Most prisoners are isolated in solitary cells monitored by TV cameras 24 hours a day.
– Prisoners are not informed of their execution until the very day the
execution is to be carried out. After the execution, only the family is
told it has already been carried out.
– As described above, the Japanese death row prisoners live, and the death penalty is carried out, in isolation from society.
– Regarding matters we introduce below, not many people in Japan might
know about them, even those who are interested in the death penalty.
1. The process of confirmation of the death sentence
1.1 From arrest to trial
1.1 From arrest to trial
The investigation decides within 23 days of the arrest whether the
suspect should be charged as a criminal defendant or not. Under the
Japanese system, no official defense counsel is available before
charges are filed. Therefore, until the suspects are charged, they can
be given legal advice only when they can manage to pay for a lawyer.
Nowadays, all regional bar associations in Japan have adopted a
voluntary scheme of public solicitor. At the request of suspects, their
family members, their friends or other prescribed persons, solicitors
go to the police station within 24 hours of arrest to interview
suspects and give them free legal advice.
the free legal advice only occurs once, upon being charged; thereafter,
if suspects want to legal advice, they must pay for a lawyer. Moreover,
many suspects are charged without knowing the existence of this service.
At the trial stage, the judges take very seriously a suspect’s
"confession," which is considered more valuable than objective evidence.
Once suspects give confessions and sign their written statements, even
if they later complain that the confession is not genuine, at the
trial, it is rare that such a complaint is accepted. This is why the
investigation is so energetically devoted to getting a suspect’s
"confession" within 23 days. Suspects are isolated, using techniques
such as interfering with their interviews with a counsel or permitting
the interviews to last only about 15 minutes. And all of the letters
between a suspect and a counsel are censored.
The Prison Act in Japan rules that suspects should be detained in
detention centers. However, since the Act also has a provision that
investigators may use cells in a police station as an alternative, they
usually detain and interrogate suspects in these cells. The
"Daiyo-Kangoku," substitute prisons located within police stations,
makes it possible to carry out more than 10 hours of interrogation
every day. It is a strong weapon of the investigation that is used to
exhaust suspects and extract confessions from them.
We can point out that there are also problems on the side of mass media
in Japan. Mass media do not care about "the rule of presumption of
innocence" when they report incidents. Once the police arrest a
suspect, they let that news be widely known, leading people to conclude
that a suspect is guilty before trial.
During an interrogation, an investigator uses news articles that show
malice toward a suspect in order to disturb his state of mind. An
arrested person must confront the investigator alone during often
lengthy interrogations, without much legal assistance. Even though the
accused is informed of "the right to silence," the person who keeps
silent will be strictly condemned by police and prosecutor and also
must endure various disadvantages, for example, denial of bail. "The
right to silence" in Japan has become nominal. Many suspects agree to
make statements whose contents are just what the police believe they
should be, because they think such admissions are the only way to end
their suffering. As a result, even though a suspect did not intend to
kill (that is, injury occurred that resulted in death), he may just by
accident appear on police statements as a person who killed with intent
(that is, a murderer), by planning the murder in advance. This is how
the police create confessions that are used against suspects.
Such a device accounts for Japan’s high guilty rate, which is 99.8% once a suspect is charged.
In criminal trials, the statements taken at the investigation stage
seem to be more important than evidence submitted in court. Therefore,
frequently, the defense does not dare dispute the factual issues in a
case, but instead seeks extenuation of his case. It takes about one
year to reach the death sentence in many cases.
Without a "Mandatory Appeals System" against the death sentence, some
defendants would not appeal and the death sentence would be confirmed
at the first trial.
In cases where the defendants lack enough money or for other reasons
cannot hire legal counsel, the court issues orders to choose official
defense counsels. However, defendants don’t have any right to choose or
release these official counsels. The rule is that official defense
counsels will be chosen each time at the first, second, and third
trial. Therefore, defendants must prepare for the next trial without
any counsel between the end of the last trial date and the day when the
counsel at the next trial will be chosen. After sentencing, the
official defense counsels can prepare appeals, but there are cases in
which defendants, during the time between trials when they have no
defense counsel, withdraw their appeals. The death sentences are
On the other hand, the prosecutors can make an appeal of the death
sentence when the court rejects the death penalty they had requested.
From 1997 to 1998, there were five cases in which the prosecution
appealed to the Supreme Court to impose the death sentences after the
Appeal Courts had sentenced defendants to life imprisonments.
The Japanese government considers the judicial process fair by
maintaining, "Japan has a three-stage trial system and a prudent
process of trials leading to death sentences." However, the Supreme
Court in Japan is a court to hear and judge legal matters, not factual
matters, making the Japanese system in reality a two-stage trial
system. At the court of appeal, the defense usually insists, "the death
penalty violates article 36 of the Japanese Constitution, which forbids
cruel criminal penalties." The Supreme Court, however, has never
accepted that line of reasoning, and has consistently rejected this
2. Treatment of defendants at the trial stage
2.1 The place they are detained
Defendants are detained in a detention center (Koci-syo). There is a
system of release on bail at the court’s discretion, but in cases
involving a serious crime that may lead to a death sentence, there is
no possibility of bail being granted.
A detainee may have a very small space; the size of a solitary cell in
which defendants are detained is about 5 meters square. Inside of it
are a sink and a toilet stool, as well as bedding (futon), a desk, and
other things. The detainee is not allowed to move freely inside of the
cell in accordance with the regulations of a detention center.
Most detention centers lack heating in the area where detainees live. Many detainees therefore suffer from frostbite.
Detention centers also lack air conditioning equipment. Detainees may have prickly heat throughout the summer.
Especially in the case of defendants who are being considered for the
death sentence, their movement is strictly controlled to prevent
suicide attempts. They are monitored 24 hours a day by a video-camera,
which requires that their cells be kept lighted even during sleep time.
Cell windows are screened with iron bars and a panel that contains some
holes. Therefore, the detainee in this "suicide prevention cell" has a
window that is about one-200th the size of a window in a regular cell
and that lets in about one-fifth as much sunshine.
2.2 Communication with the outside
Detainees can meet anyone until their sentences have confirmed.
However, in almost cases, they can meet only once a day and maximally 3
persons together at same time. The duration of this meeting is about 10
to 30 minutes. There is a panel for screening between detainees and
visitors in the meeting room. Prison officers attend at the meeting and
record what the prisoners and visitors talk about. Detainees have no
possibility to use telephone.
Detainees are not allowed to meet with journalists who have the purpose of collecting information or news materials.
Detainees may send letters to anyone, but in principle, they may send
them only once a day. The number of pages per letter is restricted to
7. Detainees may receive letters from anyone. However, the officers
censor all letters from/to detainees. If they judge that some sentences
in a letter are not proper for detainees to write or read, they will
either order detainees to rewrite them or they will blacken out the
sentence with ink (Kuronuri). The same practice is used in the case of
books and magazines.
Furthermore, the court may prohibit a detainee from meeting persons
other than his/her attorney, when they judge there is the possibility
of escape and destruction of evidence about the detainee. Under this
order the detainee cannot meet with his/her friends and family members
for a long time, and therefore must defend him/herself alone.
The quantities of the detainee’s belongings are also restricted.
Although this rule may be used to restrict prisoner’s personal items,
it can also be used to restrict legal documents relating to a
prisoner’s criminal or civil trial. As a result, detainees who are on
trial for a long time will have difficulty fully defending themselves.
2.3 Living conditions
Even when defendants have not received confirmation of their sentence,
they must adhere to a very strict time schedule at the detention
center. Therefore, they do not have enough time to prepare for their
Typical daily time schedule :
Getting up 7:00
The detainees have meals 3 times a day. Regarding the taste and
quantity of meals, each person will have a different evaluation. But as
to nutrition, vitamins are insufficient due to lack of fresh
vegetables. The detainees may buy fruit with their own money, but some
detainees do not have the money to do so. Furthermore, it is harsh
treatment to have 3 meals separated by only 9 hours.
2.5 Exercise and medical treatment
Detainees may have outdoor exercise twice a week in summer and
three times a week in winter for 30 minutes each time. The detainee who
is confined in a single cell, as in the case of a person whose death
sentence has been confirmed, must exercise alone. The exercise area is
about 2 meters wide and 5 meters long, made of concrete and located at
the porch or on the roof. When the detainees exercise, they are
monitored by an officer. They may only use a jump rope.
Regarding taking a bath, detainees may do so every exercise day as well
as 3 times a week in summer and twice a week in winter. They are
allowed about 15 minutes to bathe, including time for putting on and
taking off clothes. Detainees who are confined in a single cell bathe
They spend their time sitting in their own cell as well as meeting, exercise, and bathing.
Detainees who request to do are allowed to work while sitting. They may
earn from 4 to a maximum of 5 thousand yen per month, but their income
is restricted these days.
Because of lack of exercise, vitamins, and medical care, detainees
typically suffer from disease or injuries, for example, lumbago, tooth
decay, pyorrhea alveolaris, weakened eyesight, and institutional
3. Treatment after confirmation of death sentence
Prisoners whose death sentences are confirmed are confined in single
cells of detention centers that have special chambers for the
execution. The situation in such detention cells with regard to
exercises, baths, and medical treatment is the same as for the
defendants described above.
3.1 Communication with the outside
Communication with the outside after confirmation of death
sentences is more restricted. Under article 9 of the Prison Act,
prisoners whose death sentences are finalized receive the same
treatment as other detainees and defendants. However, this regulation
does not apply to prisoners.
In principle, they may only meet with and write to their family
members. Many prisoners don’t have anyone to meet, because they have
divorced their husbands or wives, or have heard nothing from their
parents, brothers, sisters, and children for a long time after they
committed crimes. Some prisoners are adopted into the family of
supporters whom they met in the course of their trial; but they are
hardly ever allowed to meet with and write to their lawful family after
their sentences have been finalized.
The authorities deprive prisoners of any hope for life. They do not
permit prisoners to communicate with the outside, giving as the reason
"for prisoners to achieve some peace of mind." In fact, the purpose is
to make prisoners come to terms with their crimes.
Some national and international NGOs’ members and Japanese Diet members
have requested to meet prisoners, but all of these requests have been
In March 2001, Mr. Jansson, who is a chairperson of the Human Rights
Committee of the Council of Europe, visited Japan in order to study the
death penalty system. He requested to the authorities that he be
allowed to meet with a prisoner at his family members’ request, but
this request was also rejected.
Some prisoners have been executed without talking with any outside
persons until the day of the execution.
If prisoners wish, they are allowed to meet with chaplains once a month
with being attended by prison officers. The chaplains attend at the
execution. They must keep secret about the inside of the detention
center and the situation of prisoners.
Even after the sentences are finalized, prisoners are allowed to meet with and write to attorneys concerning a retrial.
However, since officers attend the meetings with attorneys, it is
difficult to keep anything secret regarding a prisoner’s retrial. There
are cases in which a meeting has not been permitted between a lawyer
and prisoner who wants to request being defended at a retrial.
Only attorneys concerned with a retrial and family members can send anything to prisoners after a sentence has been confirmed.
3.2 Life after sentence has become final
At a prisoner’s request, s/he may do easy work in the cell and receive a small income.
Lack of medical care is the same as in the case of defendants. In the
case of prisoners whose sentences become final, since they have great
difficulty communicating with the outside, it is quite possible that
their condition will worsen. Thus, one prisoner lost his/her sight
because of failure to treat a retina disease. Another prisoner had
difficulty walking because of lack of treatment for a brain tumor. A
third prisoner lost his/her ability to speak because they hardly ever
had the chance to talk. And another prisoner suffered from
institutional neurosis and ended up having a mental disorder. Even in
these situations, prisoners are hardly ever moved to a hospital.
4. The rights of defense of death row prisoners
4.1 Appeal to retrial
It is difficult in Japan to gain a court’s permission for a retrial.
Such cases are rare: four death row prisoners were found innocent
through retrials in the 1980s. These four prisoners had been tortured
during interrogations in order to produce confessions. It took 28 to 34
years before they were found innocent. Mr. Sakae MENDA, who was the
first to be found innocent, says that he has seen 70 prisoners who were
executed, and that about 5 of them claimed to be innocent.
There were 53 death row prisoners in Japan at the end of December 2000.
Among them, 25 people claimed that they were totally innocent or
innocent of a part of charges and were making appeals for retrial.
Another eight prisoners claimed to be innocent at their trial.
However, since the retrials at which the four prisoners to found to be
innocent, no additional retrials of death row prisoners have been
permitted. Even in cases in which many journalists decided that there
was a miscarriage of justice, the door to retrial will not open. In the
case of one particular prisoner, 40 years has passed since his arrest
and 30 years since confirmation of his death sentence. In December
1999, two prisoners were executed. One was executed during his eighth
appeal for retrial and while proclaiming his innocence, and the other
was executed while appealing for habeas corpus. They were executed
while considering various kinds of defenses. The government explains
that appealing for retrial or habeas corpus are not grounds for
suspending conditions of execution, since prisoners may use appeals for
retrial to escape execution. But it is possible that executions are
used to uphold the justice of the law. It is natural that prisoners who
proclaim their innocence insist they did not kill anyone. The four who
avoided execution 20 years ago claimed the same thing.
4.2 The request for amnesty
Prisoners or their lawyers can make requests for amnesty.
However, since 1975, there is not been any death penalty case in which a prisoner had his punishment reduced by amnesty.
are informed orally of the result of their request for amnesty. The
amnesty decision is not given to the prisoner’s lawyer. It is
impossible to raise an objection to the decision.
In December 1995, a prisoner who had been informed orally of rejection
of his request for amnesty was given no time to take any measures
against it. He was brought to the execution chamber and executed
5. Carrying out the execution
In Japan, no executions were carried out between November 1989 and March 1993.
December 1989, "The Second Optional Protocol to the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)" was ratified by the
United Nations. We hoped the death penalty would be abolished if this
situation continued. But in March 1993, executions began again.
5.1 The legal process
The Criminal Procedure Act in Japan states that the executors of
judgment are prosecutors, but that the death penalty shall be carried
out by order of the Minister of Justice (The Criminal Procedure Act,
article 475). One of the main reasons there were no executions for
three years or more as mentioned above was that the Minister of Justice
during that time refused to issue an order. However, the Ministers of
Justice since then have issued orders to carry out executions in the
belief that the minister’s role is to carry out penalties confirmed by
The act only states, however, that the execution of the death penalty
shall occur within 5 days of the date an order was issued (Criminal
Procedure Act, article 476). There are no written provisions concerning
how, where and by whom the executions shall be carried out. This is to
say, there is no legal basis for the execution of the death penalty.
Moreover, prisoners who are to be executed are chosen arbitrarily. The
aged, the mentally disturbed, and the person who was a juvenile at the
time of committing a crime have all been executed.
In the past 6 or 7 years, executions have been carried out while the
Diet was not sitting. In 1994, the "Diet Representatives Association
for the Abolition of Death Penalty" was established. But because
executions have been carried out while the Diet is not sitting, Diet
members have been unable to demand explanations by the Ministry of
Justice during parliamentary debate. The Japanese Minister of Justice
has been changed about every 7 or 8 months. The Ministry of Justice has
tried to create a system that will avoid the possibility that a
minister will not order executions. This means that the executions are
repeated arbitrarily once or twice a year without any relationship to
the conditions of the prisoners.
5.2 Process leading to the execution
5.2.1 Before the execution
The prisoners, their family members, or their counsels will never be
informed in advance of an execution. On the morning of the execution,
prisoners will be called suddenly and informed that "the sentence of
execution will now be carried out," and will be brought to the
execution chamber. Prisoners will not permitted to say goodbye to their
They will not be able to call their counsels and will not be given opportunities to have legal assistance.
The fact that executions are not known in advance makes the prisoners’
condition of mind unstable. These days, executions are carried out 6 or
7 years after confirmation of the death penalty sentences. This
situation forces prisoner who have spent 6 or 7 years after
confirmation of their sentences to live each and every day in dread of
the day the execution will be carried out. Some people are executed
even though they are appealing for a retrial. Even if prisoners are
appealing for amnesty, they may be informed of their executions at the
same time they receive notice of rejection of their appeal.
If prison officers stop in front of a cell in the morning, it means the
last moments of the prisoner’s life have arrived. Even if prison
officers do not stop this morning, who knows about tomorrow? In that
case, we may say that each new day merely gives prisoners a 24-hour
postponement of execution. Such a life continues until the day of
5.2.2 Execution of the death penalty
At the execution chamber, the authorities perform certain ceremonies. A
few minutes are given to the prisoners for writing their will and for
saying goodbye to their chaplains.
Then they are handcuffed from behind, blindfolded, and brought onto the
hanging place, whose floor is split in two. They are tied up while on
their knees to prevent wounding the body in case they struggle. At the
same time the hanging rope is placed around the prisoner’s neck.
At a signal, the floor splits into two, and prisoners fall into the
opening. Since the length of the rope has been adjusted in advance to
take account of the height of prisoners, they continue cramping until
their death, suspended in the air some 15 centimeters above the
In the underground room, a doctor is standing by to take the prisoner’s
pulse and listen for a heartbeat. It is said that 15 to 20 minutes are
needed to die.
After the execution, the prisoner’s family will be informed about it.
If within 24 hours the family asks to have the body, it is possible to
comply. There have been 39 executions since March 1993 when the
execution of death penalty was restarted, but on only two occasions
were the bodies taken back. Mr. Norio NAGAYAMA was executed in August
1997. His lawyer wanted to take the body, but the authorities had it
cremated and only allowed his bones to be taken. It is presumed that
there were traces of NAGAYAMA’s final struggling.
Belongings of the prisoner are returned to his family, except for
"diary or documents as such" after confirmation of his death sentence.
There is no way to identify belongings, however, other than a "diary."
6. The general situation of the Japanese death penalty system
6.1 The number of executions
The number of executions over the last 20 years is as follows:
In the 8 years (from 1982 to 1989) before executions stopped, 13
persons were executed; but the number of executions in the 8 years
since they were restarted (from 1993 to 2000) is 39 persons, three
times as many as before.
6.2 Public opinion
The government says that public opinion supports the death penalty
system, but this is not entirely true. A public opinion poll conducted
by the government in 1999 showed that 79.3% of the respondents said, "I
think the death penalty system is necessary through unavoidable
circumstances." However, the question itself is problematic, as the
following makes clear: One question asked:
Regarding the death penalty system, with which of the following opinions do you agree?"
The optional answers are:
- "I think the death penalty system should be abolished in any case."
- "I think the death penalty system is necessary through unavoidable circumstances."
- "I cannot decide with which answer I agree."
Given those choices, it is natural that most respondents would select
the second answer. People have little access to information about the
death penalty system, because prisoners are living in solitary
circumstances, hidden from the community and executed secretly.
On other hand, the sub-question for those polled who selected the
option of "necessary" asked what the death penalty system should be
like in the future. For this question, the optional answers and the
percentage of people who selected them were as follows:
- "Should keep the current system in the future": 56.5%
- "Should abolish if circumstances allow": 37.8%
- "I can’t decide": 5.7%
These results indicate that nearly half of the persons who think the
death penalty today is "necessary" are convinced it should be retained
in the future.
The Japanese government should make much of this result, follow the
recommendation of the Committee of the International Covenant on Civil
and Political Rights, and promote abolition of the death penalty.
Japan maintains a cruel death penalty system and executes two or more prisoners every year.
In 1993 and 1998, the Committee of the International Covenant on Civil
and Political Rights recommended to the Japanese government that it
abolish the death penalty, but the government continues to disregard it
and continues to execute people. Furthermore, the government also
cooperates with other countries that retain the death penalty to
protest opinions on abolition. The Japanese government has also
objected to 5 resolutions on abolition since 1993 at the UN Human
Rights Committee. It is thus moving in a direction opposite of
international opinion in favor of abolition.
– Please give your support to our efforts to abolish the death penalty in Japan.
– Please appeal to the Japanese government to abolish the death penalty and protest the execution of the death penalty.
(translation : Amnesty International Japanese Section)