Case study

The death penalty in Japan

A case study on the death penalty in Japan from the 2013 Human Rights and Democracy Report.


Japan ended a 20-month moratorium on its use of the death penalty in March 2012. Since then the trend has been upwards: it executed seven prisoners in 2012 and eight in 2013. Japan’s death penalty system is not transparent, and the process from detention to execution remains opaque. Inmates are typically notified of their execution only a few hours before it is due to take place, and in the majority of cases the family is informed only once the execution has been carried out.

The international community has criticised Japan’s use of the death penalty; these concerns have not yet been addressed. In 1998, the UN Human Rights Council raised concerns about the conditions of detention and treatment of inmates on death row, limited pre-trial safeguards, lack of recourse to habeas corpus and the high number of capital convictions based on confessions. Last year, the UN Committee Against Torture expressed concern about “the lack of means for verifying the proper conduct of interrogations”.

The government of Japan cites public support in order to justify the death penalty. The last official survey commissioned by the Japanese Cabinet Office in 2009 found 86% of the Japanese public in favour. However, interest groups, such as the Death Penalty Project and Japan Centre for Prisoners’ Rights, argue that their own research suggests that the government’s surveys may not accurately represent the views of the Japanese public.

Internationally, the continued use of the death penalty by Japan, a G8 nation, may discourage other states from reviewing their own capital punishment systems. But Japan could become a positive example to others; the wider impact of such a globally influential nation enacting a moratorium, or moving to abolition, would send a strong signal to other nations that they should re-evaluate their own practices.

The UK values its strong relationship with Japan, in which we work closely together on a broad range of international issues. At the same time, we will continue to engage with the government of Japan, to support a moratorium on the death penalty, followed by its abolition.

This case study is part of the 2013 Human Rights and Democracy Report.

Published 10 April 2014