Capital punishment in Japan

Capital punishment in Japan is a legal penalty. It is applied in practice only for aggravated murder, although it is also permitted for certain crimes against the state, such as treason. Executions are carried out by hanging.

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

Death sentences are usually passed in cases of multiple murder, though some individuals who committed only a single murder have been sentenced to death and executed in extraordinary cases, such as those involving torture, displays of excessive brutality, or kidnappings where there was a demand for ransom.[1][2]


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, probably as a result of the influence of Buddhist teachings, and the death penalty was abolished completely in the Heian period. The death penalty was not used for 346 years following the execution of Fujiwara no Nakanari in 810, until it was revived during the Hōgen rebellion.[3]

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 offenses could be punished by death, and family members and even neighbors 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, offenses against masters and elders were increasingly punished much more harshly than offenses 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.[4]


Sentencing guideline – Nagayama StandardEdit

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 separate robbery-murders in 1968 and was finally hanged in 1997. The Tokyo High Court originally gave him a life term, but, in 1983, the Supreme Court of Japan held it was an error, and quashed this sentence before sending Nagayama back on death row.

The court ruled that the penalty shall be decided in consideration of the degree of criminal liability and balance of justice based on a nine-point set of criteria.[5] Though technically not a precedent, this guideline has been followed by all subsequent capital cases in Japan.[6] 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, the age of majority is 20).
  8. Defendant's previous criminal record.
  9. Degree of remorse shown by the defendant.

The number of victims killed is the most important criterion for imposition of a death sentence. A death sentence handed down for a single murder (previous convictions included) is considered "extraordinary".

In 2012, a research institute affiliated with the Supreme Court issued a report on application of capital punishment from 1980 to 2009. The study found that, while prosecutors very rarely demand the death penalty in cases of single murder, death sentences were passed in 32% of those cases. On the other hand, prosecutors seek the death penalty almost systematically in cases of multiple homicide, and 59% of cases of double-murder and 79% of cases where three or more victims have been killed result in death sentences being passed.

The study also found that death sentences were passed in all cases of convicted murderers who killed again after being released on parole from life prison terms, and in all robbery-murder cases with three or more people killed.

Furthermore, in 5 of 10 kidnap-for-ransom cases in which one person was killed, the defendants were sentenced to death.[7]

Judicial processEdit

Since May 2009, district courts try capital cases using the lay judge system, where three professional judges sit with six randomly chosen citizens. Five votes of nine-member court, including at least one professional judge, are required for issuing a conviction and any punishment, including death.

Japan has a civil law legal system; therefore, appeal courts retry both facts and law. High courts retry cases with only three judges and no lay judges, and can either reduce a death sentence to life or raise a life sentence to death. Ultimately, a five-member petty bench of the Supreme Court has the final say on the penalty, Article 411 of Code of Criminal Procedure allowing it to remand the case or change the punishment if the one handed down by the high court is "seriously unfair".[8]

In only three cases since 1945 has the Supreme Court ruled a high court-imposed life sentence too lenient and ordered a retrial for death sentence. Among them are Norio Nagayama and Takayuki Fukuda, both under 20 at time of crime. The third case was that of a man convicted of murdering an elderly woman for robbery shortly after being paroled from a life sentence imposed for a similar crime.[9]

Stays of executionEdit

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).[10]

Death rowEdit

Japanese death row inmates are imprisoned inside the detention centres of Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Sendai, Fukuoka, Hiroshima and Sapporo. Despite having high courts, Tachikawa Detention Centre and Takamatsu Detention Centre are not equipped with execution chambers; executions administered by the Tachikawa and Takamatsu High Courts are carried out in the Tokyo and Osaka Detention Centres. 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 to communicate with their fellows. They are permitted two periods of exercise a week, are not allowed televisions and may only possess three books.[11] Prison visits, both by family members and legal representatives, are infrequent and closely supervised.


The execution warrant issued for Shoko Asahara, who was executed in 2018.

The execution warrant is signed by the Minister of Justice after internal consultations within the justice ministry. Once the final approval is signed, the execution will take place within five business days.

By statute, the execution cannot take place on a national holiday, Saturday, Sunday, or between 31 December and 2 January.

The death penalty is carried out by hanging in an execution chamber within the detention centre. When an execution order has been issued, the condemned prisoner is informed on the morning of their execution. The condemned is given a choice of a last meal. The prisoner's family and legal representatives, and also the general public, are informed only afterwards. Since 7 December 2007, the authorities have been releasing names, natures of crime, and ages of executed prisoners.[12]

The method of hanging is the long drop,[citation needed] causing instant unconsciousness by neck fracture and death by hypoxia resulting from strangulation.[13]

As of December 2020, the number of inmates on death row was 110.[14]

Death sentences for minorsEdit

Having signed both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which forbid any executions for those 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.[15]

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. Eight of them have already been executed and Watanabe, who killed four people when he was 19 years old, remains on death row awaiting execution.[16]

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.[17] A month after his 18th birthday, he killed and then raped a woman, along with murdering her baby.[18][19]

Public debateEdit

The Japanese public has generally supported the death penalty. The government regularly monitors support for the death penalty, the last survey, in 2015, showing that 80.3% of the public believed the death penalty to be "permissible"; 9.7% said that it should be abolished.[20] 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.[21]

During the late 1980s, four death penalty defendants that were waiting since the period just after World War II were quashed and exonerated by the Supreme Court. Charles Lane of The Washington Post claims that this embarrassed the Ministry of Justice, whose officials sincerely believed that such mistakes by the system were almost impossible.[21] Between 1989 and 1993, four successive ministers of justice refused to authorise executions, which amounted to an informal moratorium.

The British newspaper The Times claimed that the death penalty was effectively suspended on 17 September 2009 with the appointment of Keiko Chiba, who was a member of anti-death penalty MPs caucus group, as Minister of Justice.[22] 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."[23] The Times' speculation was conclusively disproven when Chiba signed two death warrants and personally witnessed the execution.[24]


Supporters say that capital punishment is applied infrequently and only to those who have committed the most extreme of crimes — a single murder is not considered to warrant a death sentence unless there are 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.[25] However, it is more 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.[21]

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.[26] 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.[27] Within ten days, her petition was signed by 100,000 citizens.[28] 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.[29] About 318,000 citizens had signed her petition by December 2008.[27]

Although single murderers rarely face a death sentence in Japan, Takeshi Tsuchimoto, a criminal law scholar at Hakuoh University and former prosecutor 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 (of the Rie Isogai case) to death.[28] Major national newspapers published editorials in support of this unorthodox judgment on the premise that capital punishment is retained.[30] The Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun, both major national liberal newspapers, wrote in editorials that the general public favored the judgment, and the Nikkei lent its support to it.[30] The Sankei Shimbun, a major national paper on the right, evaluated the judgement with a phrase "a natural and down-to-earth judgment of great significance".[30][31] 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.[30] 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 would be started in May 2009.[30] 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.[26] However, one of the two men sentenced to death in the Isogai case had his sentence reduced to life imprisonment on appeal, and the Supreme Court refused to raise the punishment to death (but he was later sentenced to death in another murder case). The other defendant sentenced to death did not appeal and was hanged in 2015.[32]


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.[33]

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.[33] 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 and 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[10]

South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre claims that the issuance 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 Center, to show that the harshest punishment could be administered to juveniles.[10] According to The New York Times, the execution of Tsutomu Miyazaki after the Akihabara massacre was claimed to be a similar case.[34] The Japanese Federation of Bar Associations also says that capital punishment should be abolished in Japan. Supporters note that Japan has the lowest murder rate in the world,[35] although whether this is due to a deterrent effect from capital punishment or is the result of Japan's generally low crime rate overall has not been established. A recent study examining the issue concluded "that neither the death sentence rate nor the execution rate has a statistically significant effect on the homicide and robbery-homicide rates" in Japan.[36]

Recent executionsEdit

For older executions, see List of executions in Japan.

Offender Age Sex Date Place Crime Victim(s) Minister
Shoko Asahara 63 M 6 July 2018[37] Tokyo Multiple murders 29 Yōko Kamikawa
Seiichi Endo 58 M Tokyo
Masami Tsuchiya 53 M Tokyo
Tomomitsu Niimi 54 M Osaka
Yoshihiro Inoue 48 M Osaka
Tomomasa Nakagawa 55 M Hiroshima
Kiyohide Hayakawa 68 M Fukuoka
Satoru Hashimoto 51 M 26 July 2018[38] Tokyo
Yasuo Hayashi 60 M Sendai
Kenichi Hirose 54 M Tokyo
Toru Toyoda 50 M Tokyo
Masato Yokoyama 54 M Nagoya
Kazuaki Okazaki 57 M Nagoya
Keizo Okamoto 60 M 27 December 2018[39] Osaka Multiple murders 2 Takashi Yamashita
Hiroya Suemori 67 M Osaka
Koichi Shoji 64 M 2 August 2019[40] Tokyo Multiple murders 2
Yasunori Suzuki 50 M Fukuoka Multiple murders 3
Wei Wei 40 M 26 December 2019[41] Fukuoka Multiple murders 4 Masako Mori

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "LIST OF DEFENDANTS WHO ARE UNDER SENTENCE OF DEATH IN JAPAN". 13 September 2018. Archived from the original on 18 September 2013. Death penalty for a single murder is quite rare.
  2. ^ "Unpersuasive logic for death penalty in Japan". The Japan Times. 29 March 2014.
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ Petra Schmidt (2001). Capital punishment in Japan. Brill. pp. 9–24. ISBN 9004124217.
  5. ^ Prof. Norio Takahashi. "Death Penalty for Hikari City Mother-Child Murder Case". Daily Yomiuri Online. Retrieved 19 December 2010.
  6. ^ Eiji Kaji. "Lay judges wept over sentence". Daily Yomiuri Online. Archived from the original on 19 February 2013. Retrieved 19 December 2010.
  7. ^ "To advise lay judges, Supreme Court institute cites death penalty precedents". Archived from the original on 20 October 2012. Retrieved 11 April 2016.
  8. ^ "Code of Criminal Procedure". Retrieved 11 April 2016.
  9. ^ "LIST OF DEFENDANTS WHO ARE UNDER SENTENCE OF DEATH IN JAPAN". Archived from the original on 8 November 2018. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
  10. ^ a b c "Japan Hanging on to Death Penalty". South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre. Retrieved 28 May 2006.
  11. ^ Bruce Wallace – Wallace, Bruce (2 March 2006). "Awaiting Death's Footsteps". Los Angeles Times. p. 1. Retrieved 7 June 2006.
  12. ^ Hogg, Chris (7 December 2007). "Secrecy of Japanese executions". BBC News. Retrieved 28 April 2010.
  13. ^ "Strangulation | Winchester Hospital".
  14. ^ "No death penalties carried out in Japan in 2020 for first time in 9 years". The Mainichi. 29 December 2020.
  15. ^ Adachi, Kōji. 年長少年に対する死刑の是非 (in Japanese). Ritsumeikan University. Archived from the original on 16 December 2008. Retrieved 17 December 2008.
  16. ^ "山口の母子殺害で最高裁「死刑回避は不当」". Yomiuri Shimbun Morning Edition (in Japanese). 21 June 2006. p. 13.
  17. ^ Matsutani, Minoru. "Double-killer as minor will face gallows". The Japan Times. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
  18. ^ "Mother, baby killer sentenced to hang". Archived from the original on 2 June 2008. Retrieved 13 July 2017.
  19. ^ "山口・母子殺害事件「死刑回避は不当」". Yomiuri Shimbun Morning Edition (in Japanese). 21 June 2006. p. 1.
  20. ^ Cabinet Office poll: 80% of respondents think death penalty 'permissible' Archived 28 April 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  21. ^ a b c Charles LaneLane, Charles (16 January 2005). "Why Japan Still Has the Death Penalty". The Washington Post. Retrieved 7 June 2006.
  22. ^ Parry, Richard Lloyd (19 September 2009). "Japan's death penalty effectively scrapped with arrival of Keiko Chiba". The Times. London. Archived from the original on 28 September 2009. Retrieved 21 September 2009.
  23. ^ Author, No (18 September 2009). "Chiba urges death penalty debate | The Japan Times". Retrieved 26 August 2013.
  24. ^ "Pair hanged; Chiba attends as witness". Archived from the original on 10 October 2012. Retrieved 13 July 2017.
  25. ^ "Archived copy" 第024回国会 法務委員会公聴会 第2号 (in Japanese). National Diet Library. 10 May 1956. Archived from the original on 23 October 2017. Retrieved 19 March 2008.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  26. ^ a b "Net strangers to hang for slaying". The Japan Times. 19 March 2009. Retrieved 10 April 2009.
  27. ^ a b Ishihara, A.; Matsuda, S.; Kajiura, K. (12 March 2009). 被告の言葉 「耐えられない軽さ」―無念の叫び 闇サイト殺人 18日判決(5). The Yomiuri Shimbun (in Japanese). Retrieved 10 April 2009.[dead link]
  28. ^ a b ネット上で死刑求める署名 10日間で10万人! 集まる. J-Cast News (in Japanese). 4 October 2007. Retrieved 10 April 2009.
  29. ^ 極刑求め15万人が署名 闇サイト殺人、地検に提出. 47 News (in Japanese). Press Net Japan. Kyodo. 23 October 2007. Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 19 April 2009.
  30. ^ a b c d e Morishima, M. (22 March 2009). 社説ウオッチング:闇サイト殺人判決 死刑制度前提に容認. The Mainichi Shimbun (in Japanese). Archived from the original on 6 April 2009. Retrieved 10 April 2009.
  31. ^ 闇サイト殺人 常識に沿った死刑判断だ. The Sankei Shimbun (in Japanese). 19 March 2009. Archived from the original on 21 March 2009. Retrieved 13 April 2009.
  32. ^ "Man serving life for murder gets death sentence for another slaying". Retrieved 11 April 2016.
  33. ^ a b "Urgent Action in Focus, August 2005". Amnesty International. Archived from the original on 24 May 2006. Retrieved 28 May 2006.
  34. ^ Foster, Martin (18 June 2008). "Japan Hangs Three Convicted Killers". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 June 2008.
  35. ^ Hiyama, Hiroshi (29 March 2012). "Japan executes first prisoners since 2010". AFP. Retrieved 6 April 2012.[dead link]
  36. ^ Mori, Daisuke (8 September 2020). "Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment in Japan: An Analysis Using Nonstationary Time-Series Data". Supreme Court Economic Review. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 28: 61–116. doi:10.1086/709805. S2CID 224834025.
  37. ^ "AUM Shinrikyo cult founder Asahara, 6 ex-followers executed at once". Mainichi Daily News. 6 July 2018. Retrieved 26 July 2018.
  38. ^ "Japan hangs all 6 remaining Aum death row inmates". Japan Today. 26 July 2018. Retrieved 26 July 2018.
  39. ^ "Two Japanese death row inmates executed over 1988 robbery-murders of Cosmo Research president and employee". 27 December 2018.
  40. ^ "Japan hangs 2 death-row inmates, 1st executions this year". 2 August 2019. Retrieved 2 August 2019.
  41. ^ "Chinese man executed for killing family of four in Fukuoka".

External linksEdit