The death penalty is usually reserved for cases of multiple murders, though some single murderers have been executed in extraordinary cases like torture murder or kidnapping-for-ransom.
Japanese death row inmates are imprisoned inside the detention centres of Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Sendai, Fukuoka, Hiroshima and Sapporo. Despite the city having a high court, Tachikawa Detention Centre and Takamatsu Detention Centre are not equipped with execution chambers; executions administered by the Tachikawa and Takamatsu High Courts are carried out in the Tokyo and Osaka Detention Centres. The inmates on death row are not classified as prisoners by the Japanese justice system and the facilities in which they are incarcerated are not referred to as prisons. Inmates lack many of the rights afforded to other Japanese prisoners. The nature of the regime they live under is largely up to the director of the detention centre, but it is usually significantly harsher than normal Japanese prisons. Inmates are held in solitary confinement and are forbidden to communicate with their fellows. They are permitted two periods of exercise a week, are not allowed televisions and may only possess three books. Prisoners are not allowed to exercise within their own cells. Prison visits, both by family members and legal representatives, are infrequent and closely supervised.
The execution warrant is signed by the Minister of Justice after internal consultations within the justice ministry. Once the final approval is signed, the execution will take place within five days.
By statute, the execution cannot take place on a national holiday, Saturday, Sunday, or between 31 December and 2 January.
The death penalty is carried out by hanging in an execution chamber within the detention centre. When an execution order has been issued, the condemned prisoner is informed in the morning of their execution. The condemned is given a choice of the last meal. The prisoner’s family and legal representatives, and also the general public, are informed only afterwards. Since 7 December 2007, the authorities have been releasing the names, natures of crime, and ages of executed prisoners.
The method of hanging is the long drop, causing a quick death by neck fracture.
As of August 2014, the number of inmates on death row was 126. Of them, 89 are applying for their cases to be reopened and 25 are requesting amnesty.
Amnesty International argues that the Japanese justice system tends to place great reliance on confessions, even ones obtained under duress. According to a 2005 Amnesty International report:
Most have been sentenced to death on the basis of confessions extracted under duress. The potential for miscarriages of justice is built into the system: confessions are typically extracted while suspects are held in daiyo kangoku, or “substitute prisons”, for interrogation before they are charged. In practice these are police cells, where detainees can be held for up to 23 days after arrest, with no state-funded legal representation. They are typically interrogated for 12 hours a day: no lawyers can be present, no recordings are made, and they are put under constant pressure to confess. Once convicted, it is very difficult to obtain a re-trial and prisoners can remain under sentence of death for many years.
Amnesty International also reports allegations of abuse of suspects during these interrogations. There are reports of physical abuse, sleep deprivation and denial of food, water and use of a toilet. One of its biggest criticisms is that inmates usually remain for years (and sometimes decades) on death row without ever actually being informed of the date of their execution prior to the date itself, so inmates suffer due to the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not any given day will be their last. According to Amnesty International, the intense and prolonged stress means many inmates on death row have poor mental health, suffering from the so-called death row phenomenon. The failure to give advanced notice of executions has been stated by the United Nations Human Rights Committee to be incompatible with articles 2, 7 and 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre claims that the issuance of death warrants by the Ministry of Justice may be politically motivated. In 1997, Norio Nagayama, a prisoner who committed the first of several murders as a juvenile, was executed during the sentencing phase of “Sakakibara Seito” for the Kobe child murders, also resulting in a high-profile juvenile murder trial – an attempt, according to South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, to show that the harshest punishment could be administered to juveniles. According to The New York Times, the execution of Tsutomu Miyazaki after the Akihabara massacre was claimed to be a similar case.
The Japanese Federation of Bar Associations also says that capital punishment should be abolished in Japan.