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Capital punishment in Japan

Capital punishment, or the death sentence, has long been accepted in Japanese society as a viable solution to heinous crime. Usually reserved for murder and treason, most criminals are not sentenced to death unless they have committed multiple murders. Amnesty International, an organization focused on human rights, has criticized the Japanese penal system with regard to the conditions prisoners encounter on death row.

The Tokyo Detention Center is one of seven facilities that houses death row inmates in Japan.
Photo from Nesnad Wikipedia

Death Sentence Criteria in Japan

The justice system in Japan uses a set of nine criteria as guidelines for determining which crimes are worthy of a death sentence. These criteria were more or less established during the trial of Nagayama Norio, a 19-year-old convicted of murder. In late 1968, Nagayama went on a killing spree, using a handgun to murder four people. When arrested, because he was under 20 years of age, Nagayama was legally considered a minor.

It took the courts until 1979 to sentence Nagayama to death, and that sentence was overturned by a High Court in Tokyo, changing the punishment to life in prison. The Supreme Court overturned this again a few years later, and in 1987 Nagayama was officially sentenced to death with the sentencing upheld. On the first of August in 1997, Nagayama Norio was hanged in the Tokyo Detention Center.

The criteria established during the Nagayama sentencing and resentencing process ultimately left the Japanese justice system with nine factors, known as the Nagayama Standards, to consider before handing out capital punishment:

  1. How vicious was the crime?
  2. What was the perpetrator’s motive?
  3. How was the victim murdered and/or how was the crime committed?
  4. How many victims are there and what are the results of the crime?
  5. What are the feelings or thoughts of the surviving family members of the victim?
  6. How does the crime impact Japanese society?
  7. How old is the perpetrator?
  8. Does the perpetrator have a previous criminal record?
  9. Is the perpetrator remorseful?

Death Row Inmates in Japan

Those placed on death row in the Japanese legal system are not considered prisoners in the sense that they are not the same as someone who is serving a 10-year prison sentence, for example. The facilities death row inmates are kept in while on death row are likewise not referred to as prisons. There are seven facilities in major cities throughout the island nation and they are referred to as kouchisho, which translates to “detention center.” These detention centers are in Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Sendai, Sapporo, and Fukuoka, and each has an execution chamber where the death row inmate is hanged when their sentence is eventually carried out.

Inmates housed in a death row detention centers are kept in solitary confinement and not permitted to converse with other inmates. This is part of the reason Amnesty International and others criticize the system as inhumane. Two exercise sessions per week are afforded to each death row inmate. The inmates are forbidden from exercising within their cells and they are permitted a maximum of only three books. No television access at all for death row inmates in Japan, and visits from family or guardians are heavily supervised and considerably infrequent.

From 1946 until 1993, there were 766 people sentenced to death in Japan and of the 766 people, 608 were executed. As of December 2013, there were 129 individuals on death row in Japan. Of the 129 inmates, 85 had open requests for their cases to be reopened for review, and 25 were request exoneration.

Death Sentences and Executions in Japan

Once sentenced to death, the execution is supposed to be carried out within six months of the final appeal failure. For most cases, the inmates remain in a detention center under the abovementioned conditions, for an average of 5-7 years. Roughly a quarter of the death row inmates remain in a detention center for more than a decade before being executed, and some have remained confined for over 30 years. Hirasawa Sadamichi was on death row for 32 years awaiting execution but died at 95-years-old of natural causes.

When an inmate has reached their execution time, they are informed the morning of that their sentence will be carried out. The inmate is given a choice for a last meal. Interestingly, the family or guardians are not usually informed of the execution until after the fact, which is another target of criticism by Amnesty International and others.


The Nagayama Criteria for Assessing the Death Penalty in Japan: Reflections of a Case Suspect by Daniel A. Metraux The Death Penalty in Japan: How Genuine is Public Support?

Kanagawa University Crime and Capital Punishment in Japan: How Does the Japanese Society Respond?

Delegation of the EU to Japan: The Nagayama Case

Photo from Nesned at Wikipedia

Video from hirosi1250a on YouTube

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