The Death Penalty in Japan

Charles Lane, staff writer on national affairs at The Washington Post published an insightful article about the death penalty in Japan at Foreign Policy. A few excerpts:
Unlike capital punishment in the United States, Japan’s death penalty is on the rise. Japanese officials keep state executions out of public view and shrouded in secrecy. Not even the condemned prisoners know the day they will die. Step inside the gallows for a rare look at how Japan takes a life.


Not only is Japan the only member of the Group of Seven industrialized countries other than the United States to retain capital punishment, it is also increasing its use of the death penalty.


In Japan, death row prisoners are not told in advance of their execution dates—a practice international human rights organizations condemn as a form of psychological torment.


Perhaps the most notorious such miscarriage of justice involved Sakae Menda, who in 1948, at the age of 23, was convicted of a double ax murder. The conviction was based on the contradiction-riddled testimony of a prostitute and Menda’s own confession, extracted after spending 80 hours in a police station without sleep.

[...] seems incredible that confessions are not given to the court as either tapes or verbatim transcripts. Rather, they are rewritten and summarized by the authorities themselves.


Toyoko Ogino, an interpreter I worked with in the coal-mining town of Omuta, was surprised when I told her that prisoners were hanged. “I thought that was just an expression,” she said.


Polls indicate that public support for capital punishment is even stronger in Japan than in the United States—more than 81 percent in a February 2005 survey.


Five guards press separate buttons simultaneously. Only one of these is the button that actually opens the trap door. And all of this takes place outside the witnesses’ field of vision—offstage, as it were. There is a hanging, but no identifiable hangman.
I'm really irritated by the Japanese people' high support for capital punishment. I'll try to find some information about what were the pro and con reasons given. Can't say for sure whether it's for real, but I found a picture of the gallows in the Osaka detention center here. I assume Toyoko Ogino's misunderstanding of the expression was most probably a reference and mix-up to 首を切る (kubi wo kiru), which directly translated means something along the lines of to decollate s.o.. This expression is used when somebody loses his job, but 絞首する (koushu suru) doesn't actually carry a metaphoric meaning except to decollate s.o..

There's further information about the death penalty at This information is from their website:
In 2004, there were at least 3,797 executions in 25 countries around the world. China, Iran, the United States, and Viet Nam were responsible for 94 percent of these known executions.
The vast majority of them in China, though. In regard to the death penalty, Japan and the United States are among countries such as China, Iran, Viet Nam, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Kuwait, Bangladesh, Egypt, Singapore, Yemen and North Korea. Amnesty International has more facts about the issue here.
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Blogger Younghusband said ... 6/02/2005 11:57:00 PM

The vast majority is China. Here are the stats:

Most Executions in 2004

1. CHINA (At least 3,400 Executions)

2. IRAN (Approx. 159)

3. VIET NAM (Approx. 64)


5. Saudi Arabia (33)

6. Pakistan (15)

7. Kuwait (9)

8. Bangladesh (7)

9. Egypt (6)

10. Singapore (6)

11. Yemen (6)

AI suspects that the actual numbers for China and Iran are much higher.    

Anonymous Chirol said ... 6/03/2005 12:09:00 AM

Interesting post. Noch eine kleinigkeit! Auf Englisch heissen Sie a pro(s) und a con(s), nicht contra. Das ist deutsch!

Why are you against the death penatly for example? For moral reasons? Because of the mistakes? Because it isn't a deterrent? What?    

Blogger Curzon said ... 6/03/2005 01:47:00 AM

I'm really irritated by the Japanese people' high support for capital punishment.

What's your place to be irritated? People who kill people should be shown no mercy in my book. Crime in Europe has risen since the wholesale abolition of the death penalty. Get off the moral high horse!    

Blogger Grendel said ... 6/03/2005 10:42:00 AM

Chirol: Auf Englisch heissen Sie a pro(s) und a con(s), nicht contra. Das ist deutsch!

Thank you for pointing it out, Chirol, I'll correct it.

Why are you against the death penatly for example?

The reason I'm against the death penalty is its irreversibility. The most other reasons for and against it are debatable, since the effects of the death penalty are open to interpretation - see Curzons comment above. I agree that there are crimes and people beyond remedy (?) whom a country has an obligation and duty to prevent repetitions of attacks against other members of its society, but that's what life imprisonment is for. has also an interesting article about the issue with a detailed list of arguments for and against the death penalty.

Curzon: What's your place to be irritated? People who kill people should be shown no mercy in my book. Crime in Europe has risen since the wholesale abolition of the death penalty. Get off the moral high horse!

The reason for my surprise was the last but one paragraph about the 81% of support in Japan. I'm not sure a moral high horse is a precondition to be irritated that such a broad majority supports the death penalty - I'm from a society where the support of it is quite lower and the memory of the abuse by the government historically fresh enough to act as a deterrent.

I assume your statement about the increasing crime rate in Europe since all countries abolished the death penalty is based on numbers - I'd really like to see them. Looking for answers myself, I found Twenty Years of Abolition: The Canadian Experience. Perhaps Younghusband can share his view about it?

Btw, looking for other statistical data I came across some numbers from a survey of the federal U.S. death penalty system.

Another interesting detail: Venezuela was the first nation in the Americas to abolish the death penalty (1863).

I'd like to know your positions on the death penalty, are you all three in favor for it?    

Blogger Younghusband said ... 6/04/2005 04:22:00 AM

Even though I think they deserve death, I think the system is screwed up. I don't think the death penalty is much of a deterrent as it is done in the US. It takes to goddamn long! I like Iran's way of doing it: have the family of the victim choose between death and a decided cash sum, then it's straight to chop-chop or cha-ching!!    

Blogger Grendel said ... 6/04/2005 10:51:00 AM

I don't think the death penalty is much of a deterrent [...]

As a matter of fact, the death penalty's effect as a deterrent has never been confirmed. I haven't looked much into the details of such findings, but I suppose, psychologically, it can be explained this way: If I want to perform a crime, i.e. kill somebody else, I don't think I'll be cought. It's either because I'm smarter than the authorities, my plan is too good, or there's a catch, that I have an alibi, the killing is "morally justified" or "god wants me to do it so he'll protect me", etc. - if I think about what comes after the act at all (thinking rationally doesn't appear to be something many offenders do).

About the system in Iran: Reading news like this, I get the impression the system is flawed enough, not mentioning the idea that the victim's family has to choose between killing the offender or recieve money: Since loosing someone like this is a horrible trauma for everybody involved, I sincerely doubt the victim's family is in any condition to decide something like that.

Do you know the relation between death and a cash sum as retribution?    

Anonymous Chirol said ... 6/10/2005 12:52:00 AM

I'm definitely for it, however I agree that it is often used unfairly and that blacks proportionally get it more than whites. In addition, not enough people receive it. I'd be for looking into extending it to other crimes such as child molestation and possibly rape. Those are definitely debatable, but for 1st degree (intentional) murder it should be an option to be decided by the judge and if someone is a repeat offender they should be killed. In addition, I think the death penalty takes too long to carry out and is too expensive. A bullet in the head is uch cheaper than lethal injection, the electric chair or gas chamber. A bullet and shovel don't cost much. I believe there should be a mandatory minimum of time the person has for appeals but after that he's worm food. Thus, to get back to my first point, I think all sentences should be postponed until a more thorough investigation can be done and an overhaul of the justice system. In the meantime, only those most deserving should receive it where there is no doubt at all of the persons guilt, whether through confession, DNA evidence or many witnesses, cameras etc.

Someone who is willing to kill should be willing to die too. I look at it as the individuals fault, not a problem with the state. If someone breaks into my house he can coun't on me shooting him. Yet, I've done absolutely nothing wrong. I didn't go looking for someone to hurt and in fact would always prefer not to do that, but if someone is willing to infringe upon my rights he shouldn't expect me to respect his and should be prepared for the consequences.

I also don't think the death penalty is a deterrent. Definitely not. However, I feel it's a fair punishment for certain crimes and there is nothing cruel or uncivilized about it.    

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