In a couple of weeks during December 1991 Masakatsu Nishikawa strangled and stabbed four female bar workers in Japan. He pleaded guilty to one murder charge, but argued that, as he was very drunk at the time, he had diminished responsibility. He denied committing the other murders. Koichi Sumida, killed a young work colleague, Misa Kato. Both men were executed on 13 July on the order of Katsutoshi Kaneda, Japan’s Justice Minister. Nishikawa was 61; Sumida was 34. In a way Sumida was rather unlucky – in Japan you normally have to carry out multiple murders to get topped.
The procedure is very clinical, ordered, secretive
The procedure is very clinical, ordered, secretive. Prison guards in Japan who are ordered to carry out an execution have no choice in the matter, even if they have conscientious objections; as civil servants they are legally required to accept the duty, or be sacked. To ease any qualms, several different guards simultaneously press different buttons, all of which look as if they operate the trap door, although only one does. At the press of the button, a trap door directly under the prisoner swings open, and he drops through a square hole in the floor. The noose tightens and – if all has been well planned – the prisoner’s neck snaps, and the body dangles in a separate room downstairs, until a doctor verifies he is dead.
The noose is hidden behind a curtain so that the prisoner about to be hanged does not see it. The prisoner’s hands are handcuffed behind their back, their legs are bound, they are blindfolded, and the noose placed around their neck. The warden then asks the condemned if they have any last words. It’s important that the prisoner completes what they have to say before they are executed, otherwise they may bite through their tongue causing blood to pour out, thus causing an “unnecessarily cruel” death.
Japanese prisoners only find out on the morning of their executions that it is their turn to be hanged
Japanese executions are carried out inside detention centres of Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Sendai, Fukuoka, Hiroshima and Sapporo. Oddly enough, those on death row are not classified as prisoners by the Japanese justice system; where they are incarcerated are not referred to as prisons. Death row prisoners are in solitary confinement and forbidden to communicate with other prisoners. They have two periods of exercise a week (and are barred from exercising in their cells), are not allowed televisions and may only possess three books. Prison visits, both by family members and legal representatives, are infrequent and closely supervised. Japanese prisoners only find out on the morning of their executions that it is their turn to be hanged.
No Japanese suspect, even in an ordinary criminal case, has a right to the assistance of an attorney during police questioning, for example. Nor are there jury trials in Japan; the judges who sit on trials are employees of the same Ministry of Justice for which the prosecutors also work. Nor must prosecutors disclose all information in their files to the defence. Perhaps it’s no surprise therefore that the conviction rate in Japanese criminal trials is 99%. A Japanese defendant may appeal his death sentence to an intermediate court and the Supreme Court of Japan. But if these appeals are denied, then the defendant’s only hope for avoiding execution is to persuade the courts to grant him a new trial, based on clear new evidence that he is actually innocent.
One reason why executions are not unpopular in Japan may be due to the fact that there is no life imprisonment without parole. Judges sentencing a brutal murderer have no choice between death and a “life” sentence which actually is never more than 20 years in practice.
Twelve people died from gulping down what they thought was a free drink; no-one was ever apprehended
Japan comes very low on the list of serial killers, its most prolific being the so-called paraquat murderer who in 1985 poisoned drinks left outside vending machines. Twelve people died from gulping down what they thought was a free drink; no-one was ever apprehended.