The Death Penalty and Human Rights Dilemmas in Japan

Japan's death penalty and its latest application raise serious questions on alignment with international human rights standards and its own legal commitments under the ICCPR.

The Death Penalty and Human Rights Dilemmas in Japan

11-04-2024

Shahad Ghannam

Legal Human Rights Researcher,

Global Human Rights Defence

 

Japan stands out for its staunch retention of the death penalty, carried out by hanging, since 1907. Along with the United States, it is one of the last remaining G7 nations that actively enforce the death penalty, with 106 inmates on death row as of the beginning of this year, a stance abandoned by most democracies that is increasingly at odds with global human rights norms. 

Japan saw no executions since July 26th, 2022, and issued only a few death sentences in 2023. This halt in executions coincides with heightened international scrutiny due to the country's G7 presidency in 2023 and with internal political challenges, including the resignation of Justice Minister Yashuro Hanashi in 2022, complicating the approval of execution orders by his successors.

Japanese law typically mandates the scheduling of execution within six months after a death sentence is finalised and is ultimately carried out in utmost secrecy, however, in practice, prisoners often spend an average of 15 years on death row. Inmates are kept in stringent solitary confinement and are informed of their impending execution only on the day of or an hour in advance. This element of secrecy extends to after the execution, where families and legal representatives are only notified posthumously. In fact, in 2021 two death row prisoners filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality and humanity of being informed of their execution only on the day it is to occur, a practice that they claim has caused them severe mental distress.

Amnesty International, and other human rights organisations, continually criticise Japan's death penalty practices for their reliance on confessions often obtained under duress and without legal representation, the lack of timely and fair trials, and the mental anguish inflicted on prisoners who languish on death row for years without clear schedules for their execution. These conditions often lead to severe psychological distress known as the "death row phenomenon"​.

The most recent death sentence case in January 2024 of Yuki Endo has reignited debates over Japan's capital punishment, and particularly its application to minors or young adults, which have totalled seven since 1983. Endo committed the crimes of murder and arson as a minor in 2021, killing two individuals and injuring another. This case is significant as it highlights the significant Japanese legislative changes in 2022 such as in the Civil Code, lowering the age of adulthood from 20 to 18, and in the Juveniles Law allowing for public identification of offenders aged 18 and 19 following their indictment. Endo is the first to receive a capital punishment sentence for a crime committed at the age of 19 and the first to have his real personal information published.

Critics argue that death sentences in general fail to consider the potential for rehabilitation and disproportionately focus on retribution. Executions in Japan have sometimes been perceived as influenced by current events or public sentiment, suggesting the potential misuse of capital punishment as a political weapon to bolster governmental support during crises.This emphasises whether the death penalty, applied under Japan’s stringent and opaque judicial processes, truly serves justice or merely perpetuates a cycle of violence and retribution.

Japan's adherence to the death penalty also raises questions regarding its compliance with international human rights treaties and most prominently the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the state has ratified. By maintaining capital punishment, and the practices surrounding it, Japan risks breaching several key articles of the ICCPR including article 6 on the right to life, which should be protected by law, and in the case of retentionist states, death penalties should be reserved for only the "most serious crimes" understood as to be applied in "the most exceptional cases"; article 7 on the protection against torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, regarding the conditions endured by death row inmates; and article 9 and 14 on the right to a fair trial and legal procedural guarantees, regarding the use of forced confessions and lack of adequate legal representation or notification.

The global shift towards abolishing the death penalty, and the continuing debates both domestically and internationally,  place Japan in an increasingly scrutinised position as it balances its domestic legal traditions against international human rights expectations. The secretive execution procedures and the harsh treatment of death row inmates highlight the urgent need for Japan to reassess its stance on capital punishment.

 

Sources and further readings:

 International Federation for Human Rights, 'The Death Penalty in Japan: The Law of Silence' (October 2008) https://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrc/docs/ngos/fidhjapan94.pdf (accessed 8 April 2024).

Human Rights Watch, 'Death Penalty in Japan' in 'World Report 2024: Japan' (2024) https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2024/country-chapters/japan#:~:text=Japan%20abolish%20it.-,Death%20Penalty,the%20day%20it%20takes%20place (accessed 8 April 2024).

 Death Penalty Information Center, 'Japan Performed No Executions in 2023, Making U.S. the Only G7 Country to Use Capital Punishment Last Year' (2024) https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/japan-performed-no-executions-in-2023-making-u-s-the-only-g7-country-to-use-capital-punishment-last-year (accessed 8 April 2024).

 Amnesty International Denmark, 'Japan' (no publication date) https://amnesty.dk/vaer-med/aktivisme/amnesty-grupper/fagprofessionelle-grupper/the-danish-medical-group-against-the-death-penalty/knowledge-bank/japan/ (accessed 8 April 2024).

Kyodo News, '21-yr-old man given death penalty for 2021 murder, arson in Japan' (1 January 2024) https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2024/01/5057f9f97d82-21-yr-old-man-given-death-penalty-for-2021-murder-arson-in-japan.html (accessed 8 April 2024).

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted 16 December 1966, entered into force 23 March 1976) 999 UNTS 171 (ICCPR).

UN Human Rights Committee, 'General Comment No. 36: Article 6 (Right to Life)' (03 September 2019) UN Doc CCPR/C/GC/36.

International Federation for Human Rights, 'The Death Penalty in Japan: The Law of Silence' (October 2008) https://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrc/docs/ngos/fidhjapan94.pdf (accessed 8 April 2024) (FIDH).

Human Rights Watch, 'Death Penalty in Japan' in 'World Report 2024: Japan' (2024) https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2024/country-chapters/japan#:~:text=Japan%20abolish%20it.-,Death%20Penalty,the%20day%20it%20takes%20place (accessed 8 April 2024).

Death Penalty Information Center, 'Japan Performed No Executions in 2023, Making U.S. the Only G7 Country to Use Capital Punishment Last Year' (2024) https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/japan-performed-no-executions-in-2023-making-u-s-the-only-g7-country-to-use-capital-punishment-last-year (accessed 8 April 2024).

Amnesty International Denmark, 'Japan' (no publication date) https://amnesty.dk/vaer-med/aktivisme/amnesty-grupper/fagprofessionelle-grupper/the-danish-medical-group-against-the-death-penalty/knowledge-bank/japan/ (accessed 8 April 2024) (Amnesty).

Kyodo News, '21-yr-old man given death penalty for 2021 murder, arson in Japan' (18 January 2024) https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2024/01/5057f9f97d82-21-yr-old-man-given-death-penalty-for-2021-murder-arson-in-japan.html (accessed 8 April 2024).

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted 16 December 1966, entered into force 23 March 1976) 999 UNTS 171 (ICCPR) ; UN Human Rights Committee, 'General Comment No. 36: Article 6 (Right to Life)' (03 September 2019) UN Doc CCPR/C/GC/36.