Media watch: Death row inmates question the way they meet their ends

Several days ago, most major media outlets reported on a ¥33 million lawsuit filed by lawyers for 3 inmates on Osaka Detention House’s death row to change their execution method due to the cruel nature of the way those executions are carried out. The inmates contend that Japan’s chosen means of killing persons convicted of capital crimes, hanging, is in clear violation of Article 36 of the Constitution, which prohibits the torture of anyone, including convicted criminals. The suit also says that Japan’s method of execution “runs counter” to the International Bill of Human Rights. 

According to an April 29 article in the Asahi Shimbun, the suit filed in Osaka District Court claims that when an inmate is hanged—meaning they fall through a trap door a certain distance so that the rope around their neck snaps the spine—they can remain conscious for several minutes and experience great pain and fear before they finally succumb. In some cases, the body of the executed person can be “damaged severely,” thus destroying the person’s “dignity.” The suit does not contest the three inmates’ convictions or sentences, but only the method of execution.

The plaintiffs also state that if the government insists that hanging is not a cruel form of punishment, then they should explain and demonstrate publicly the actual circumstances surrounding executions in Japan. 

Asahi explains that in 1948 the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that execution by hanging was constitutional and “the most humane method” by “taking into consideration the current environment.” The matter came to the court’s attention again in 1955, and the decision was the same, implying that there was “no proof” that the method was “cruel.” Hanging has been the means of execution since the Meiji Era. 

The reporting says nothing about another aspect of death row that anti-capital punishment advocates insist also qualifies as cruelty: Inmates are not informed beforehand of their execution date, which means they find out only when they are summoned to the gallows. Consequently, death row inmates spend their entire incarceration in fear of the knock on their cell door and cannot properly prepare themselves for the end. 

Social media discussion of the news story has been almost uniformly against the lawsuit, with many commenters saying that the plaintiffs have no right to question their method of execution since they themselves carried out cruel killings. Some even say that it is the harsh nature of the execution method that makes Japan’s capital punishment system an effective deterrent to crime. 

Nevertheless, Japan remains only one of three OECD countries to retain capital punishment. The US and the Republic of Korea are the other two, and Korea has not executed anyone since 1997. Though it is doubtful that the Osaka District Court will find in favor of the plaintiffs, the trial, if the suit isn’t dismissed out of hand, may at least buy the three inmates some time. Still, the purpose seems to be to publicize the nature of Japan’s execution system, which is certainly more mentally and physically brutal than the most common US method. In line with the protocol of keeping the execution date a secret from inmates, the government is not keen on publicizing executions, and only in recent years has the Ministry of Justice even announced that they have taken place. If deterrence really is the reason behind retaining hanging as the official method of execution, then it would make sense to publicize how the hangings are carried out. But they don’t, and you have to wonder why. 

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