Death by Hanging — How Executions are Carried Out in Japan

Here are two articles published by the Japan Times today on death penalty in Japan.

One describes how executions are actually carried out in Japan, and the other tells a story of the mother of a man who was hanged.

Death's door: Several buttons — one of which opens the gallows' trapdoor (right), executing condemned prisoners — are seen at the Tokyo Detention House in August 2010.

  • Death’s door: Several buttons — one of which opens the gallows’ trapdoor (right), executing condemned prisoners — are seen at the Tokyo Detention House in August 2010. | KYODO

Sides weigh in on hangings but mute on death penaltY, Discussions under DPJ rule on executions remain secret

by Daisuke Sato  and Takuro Iwahashi


First in a series on hangings. In the execution chamber, a red lamp near the ceiling lights up, the chief detention officer gives the signal and five guards each press a button, one of which triggers the trapdoor of the gallows.No one will ever know which button actually opened the door.

On a lower level, the death-row inmate’s body dangles from the upper floor, the rope taut from the ceiling to the noose.

Masahiko Fujita, 66, who served as an executioner in the 1970s while a senior officer at the Osaka Detention House, recalled the face of one executed convict, noting he was pale but “looked very peaceful.”

Once the inmate is pronounced dead by a doctor, the rope is loosened and his corpse is placed in a coffin.

Fujita said the rope is tied so its noose comes to the side of the neck, making it look as if like the condemned is bowing toward witnesses when dropped from the upper floor.

The prisoner’s hands and legs are always bound to prevent them from flailing, he said.

The moment the rope is stretched taut, the noose breaks the neck and the condemned loses consciousness immediately, Fujita said.

“Some say that hanging is a brutal method of capital punishment, but I think these are opinions by those who know nothing about how it’s done,” he said. “We take extreme care in the execution process so that the dignity of death will never be undermined.”

The Penal Code stipulates that capital punishment be carried out by hanging.

Forty-four out of 78 prisoners on death row who responded to a survey carried out last fall by a nonpartisan group of Diet members seeking the abolition of capital punishment called for change, including urging lethal injection. Many respondents also expressed fear about the noose.

In 1955, the Supreme Court ruled that hanging is not unconstitutional, saying it cannot be considered particularly brutal compared with other methods of execution.

But many legal experts continue to strongly demand a rethink.

Among them is Sadato Goto, a lawyer who represented a defendant in the 2009 firebombing of an Osaka pachinko parlor that claimed five lives.

During the Osaka District Court trial, Goto argued that hanging violates Article 36 of the Constitution, which bans torture and other cruel punishment by public servants.

The defense team led by Goto asked the court to summon witnesses, including a forensic doctor from Austria who told the court that there had been cases in which hangings decapitated the inmates.

Takeshi Tsuchimoto, a former prosecutor in the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office and a witness to several hangings, was also summoned. He told the court that he believes the method could possibly be considered brutal punishment as prohibited by the Constitution. Tsuchimoto said he could barely stand to view the executions. Though he maintained that hangings should be reconsidered, he added that he backs capital punishment and will not challenge its constitutionality.

The district court ruled in October 2011 that hangings do not violate Article 36, and the defendant was sentenced to death.

Goto criticized the verdict, saying: “The court came to the judgment only on the basis of abstract analyses and failed to review crucial information of what will happen to the body of the condemned as a result of hanging.”

Under the previous administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan, the Justice Ministry spearheaded repeated discussions about execution methods — but with no major developments and few details publicly reported about the discussions.

“To change the way executions are carried out, the law will have to be changed. But I see no such momentum toward this,” one Justice Ministry source said.



by Daisuke Sato


FUKUOKA – Recalling her son’s funeral, the mother of executed killer Yukinori Matsuda said he appeared to be at peace in his coffin surrounded by flowers.“You couldn’t see your mother’s face before you died,” she had said to the body.The funeral for Matsuda, 39, took place last Sept. 28 at the Fukuoka Detention House in Sawara Ward, Fukuoka, a day after he went to the gallows.

A senior official at the detention house told the mother, who came from Kumamoto Prefecture, that Matsuda behaved well up to the last moment of his life.

Matsuda, sentenced to hang for a 2003 home invasion and double murder, did not leave a final message. His last words to his mother were conveyed by a prison official: “Mom, I feel terribly sorry for having caused you so much trouble. Please stay healthy and live a long life. I was so happy that I was your son.”

Matsuda was arrested in November 2003 for stabbing two people to death in their home in the town of Matsubase in Kumamoto Prefecture, now the city of Uki, the previous month.

In September 2006, the Kumamoto District Court sentenced him to death. The presiding judge said Matsuda did not show remorse and the court had no choice but to impose capital punishment.

In October the following year, the Fukuoka High Court upheld the sentence. Although Matsuda soon appealed to the Supreme Court, he dropped the appeal in April 2009.

But in responding to a survey conducted last year by Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima, an Upper House member opposed to capital punishment, Matsuda wrote, “I feel very sorry for what I have done and I cannot express my regret with words,” indicating deep remorse over the killings and the hurt inflicted on the victims’ relatives.

Ko Misumi, a lawyer who represented Matsuda during the district court trial, also said his client was sorry for his actions.

“Mr. Matsuda told me many times how sorry he was for the victims and that he was prepared to hang,” Misumi said. “But he didn’t seem good at expressing his feelings and failed to articulate what he was thinking in court.”

Matsuda also told him he could not forget the moment when he held his mother shortly before being arrested, the lawyer said.

“He knew that his mother, who became aged and small, was tormented by the crime he committed and he cried over and over out of remorse,” Misumi said.

When his time came, Matsuda moved forward calmly to the gallows after thanking the director of the detention house and other officials for having looked after him during his time there, sources said.

When his corpse was taken to the hearse, one of the officials told his mother her son was a good inmate.

“At that time, I wanted to ask the officials who pressed the (gallows trapdoor) buttons, ‘How did you feel when you pressed it?’ ” she said, but she managed to fight back her desire.

“I understand that they did it because that’s their job and they wouldn’t be able to answer any questions like that.”

She said people she considered friends had come to avoid any association with her, with some even suggesting that the assistance she received from her husband’s retirement allowance was actually dirty money.

She put up boards bearing the names of the two victims on a wall at her home, putting her hands together in front of them every day in an offering of prayer. Her husband did the same until he died three years ago.

“I’m glad that my son returned home during my lifetime,” she said. She talks every day to his photo placed on a Buddhist altar in the living room.

As of Dec. 31, there were 133 inmates on death row, the most since 1949.

Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki said at his inaugural news conference in December that he will respect any verdicts made by the courts but that he alone will have the final say on executions.

4 responses to “Death by Hanging — How Executions are Carried Out in Japan

  1. Pingback: Three Executions in Japan Today (Feb. 21, 2013) | Wrongful Convictions Blog

  2. Pingback: Two Executions in Japan… | Wrongful Convictions Blog

  3. Pingback: Japan’s Hanging Method Criticized by U.S. Occupation Officials More than 60 Years Ago | Wrongful Convictions Blog

  4. Pingback: Executions in Japan — A Consideration of Judicial Hanging | Wrongful Convictions Blog

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