Mentally ill prisoners continue to face death penalty in Japan, says Amnesty

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 11 September 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3729
  1. Zosia Kmietowicz
  1. 1London

    The human rights group Amnesty International has called for an end to the use of the death penalty in Japan, where prisoners sentenced to death who are mentally ill continue to be executed, in contravention of international law.

    Professional medical bodies are also being asked to state their opposition to doctors and nurses participating in capital punishment. Instead they should demand good health care for prisoners, says the report.

    The harsh conditions in Japanese prisons have led to many inmates developing mental illness, says Amnesty, which conducted a four month investigation into the extent to which mental health is taken into account in the use of the death penalty in the country. It found virtually no safeguards to prevent prisoners on death row with mental conditions being executed.

    Kate Allen, the UK director of Amnesty International UK, said, “Japan’s death row system is driving prisoners into the depths of mental illness, but they are still being taken and hanged at only hours’ notice in an utterly cruel fashion.

    “The mental anguish of not knowing whether each day is to be your last on earth is terrible enough, but Japan’s justice system also sees fit to bury its death row prisoners in the most punitive regime of silence, isolation, and sheer non-existence imaginable.

    “Rather than persist with a shameful capital punishment system the new Japanese government should immediately impose a moratorium on all further executions. Reforms to Japan’s deeply flawed police interrogation system are also urgently needed, but halting executions must be the immediate priority.”

    The investigation found that Japanese prisoners who have been sentenced to death are largely confined to isolation cells; they must remain seated at all times; and they are prohibited from talking to other inmates or making eye contact with guards. Televisions are forbidden and visits are limited.

    Ninety seven prisoners aged from 26 to 85 currently face execution in Japan. Last year 15 prisoners were executed, one of the highest numbers in the world.

    Independent medicolegal assessments of such prisoners in Japan are few, and no inmate has ever been taken off death row for reasons of mental illness, says the report.

    In one case highlighted in the report, Miyazaki Tsutomu, who was arrested in 1989 for molesting four girls, was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, or schizophrenia. Despite receiving psychiatric treatment for more than 10 years the Tokyo District Court judged that he was accountable for his crimes, and he was executed in June 2008.

    Amnesty’s report says that there is “marked resistance” by the Japanese prison authorities to any measures considered liable to affect an inmate’s “calm state of mind.” This rationale is used to justify a wide range of severe restrictions, including not telling prisoners about their execution dates and denying visits from lawyers, independent psychiatrists, and non-governmental organisations.

    Alistair Carmichael MP, who chairs the parliamentary group for the abolition of the death penalty, said, “Having been to Japan to see for myself the destructive effects of its incredibly secretive capital punishment system, I feel strongly that the British government should now press for a death penalty moratorium from the newly installed Japanese administration. The time is surely right for a change on this in Japan.”


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3729


    • Hanging By A Thread: Mental Health And The Death Penalty in Japan is at

    View Abstract

    Sign in

    Log in through your institution