The secret world of Japanese executions

On the morning of Thursday 13 July two Japanese men were hanged for murders they carried out - in one case as long ago as 1991. Amnesty International protested, arguing (as it always does) that as 141 countries had already abolished the death penalty, Japan should join them. There's little chance of that happening - the death penalty is popular in Japan.

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

In 1961 the Supreme Court of Japan ruled that hanging does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The last government survey in 2015 revealed that 80.3% of the public believe the death penalty is “permissible”; just 9.7% thought it should be abolished. On average, there are about two executions a year in Japan and it’s not seen as a big deal. As Nishikawa and Sumida passed through various ante-rooms on their way to the gallows they passed, as do all the condemned in Japan, an image of Kanzeon, who for Buddhists across Asia is the Goddess of Mercy.

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

Once the prisoner finishes speaking, the warden gives the order to begin the hanging. In the button room a red light turns on signaling everyone to press their buttons at the same time. Guards have described a sound of gushing air, like a truck’s air brakes, that can then be heard travelling out of the room towards the prisoner, followed by a loud thud as the square-metre platform beneath his feet gives way. The guards then remove the noose, take off the hand and leg cuffs, and place the body in a coffin. Sometimes the government sends flowers. The corpse is then taken away for cremation, again secretly. Sometimes the relatives of the guards, or the guards themselves, might carry out Kiyome-shio, a ritual sprinkling of salt for purification and exorcism.

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

Oddly enough, Japan’s most notorious serial killer was a woman, Miyuki Ishikawa, who is reckoned to have murdered at least 100 infants, yet who ended being sentenced to just four years when her crimes were discovered in the late 1940s. She trained as a midwife and worked as a director of a maternity hospital. In the 1940s, devastated Japanese society saw considerable poverty and the raising of children imposed a considerable burden on poor parents. Ishikawa could have defended herself by saying she was doing such parents a favour, by neglecting their children. The only trouble is that she extracted large cash payments from some parents, arguing that the payment would be much less than the cost of raising the unwanted children.

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.