Japan continues to execute mentally ill prisoners

Tokyo Detention House, one of seven locations in Japan where prisoners are executed.

Tokyo Detention House, one of seven locations in Japan where prisoners are executed.

© Amnesty International


10 September 2009

The government of Japan continues to execute prisoners who are mentally ill, according to a new Amnesty International report.

Hanging by a thread: mental health and the death penalty in Japan highlights five cases where mental illness has been reported, including two cases with extensive medical documentation. These prisoners remain on death row facing execution.

The exact number of death row prisoners with mental illness is unknown. The secrecy around the death penalty and prisoners' health, combined with a lack of scrutiny by independent mental health experts, has led to reliance on secondary testimony and documentation to assess the mental state of those on death row.

The government has a policy of not allowing access to prisoners on death row and denied Amnesty International’s request for access.

Amnesty International’s report also emphasises that prison conditions need to be improved to prevent inmates from developing serious mental health problems while on death row.

Japan has signed up to international standards that require that those with a serious mental illness be protected from the death penalty. The country is contravening those standards by its failure to prevent the execution of prisoners who are mentally ill.

As of 3 September 2009, 102 people are on death row in Japan waiting to find out if their government will put them to death. For those who have completed the legal process, death could come at a few hours' notice. Each day could be their last.

The arrival of a prison officer with a death warrant would signal their execution within hours. Some live like this year after year, sometimes for decades.

"To allow a prisoner to live for prolonged periods under the daily threat of imminent death is cruel, inhuman and degrading," said James Welsh, Amnesty International’s Health Coordinator and lead author of the report. "Amnesty International’s studies around the world have shown that those suffering mental health problems are at particular risk of ending up on death row.

"Mental disorders can give rise to crimes, impair the ability of a defendant to participate in an effective legal defence, and are likely to play a significant role in the decision of prisoners to terminate appeals. In Japan, condemned inmates are also at risk of developing a serious mental illness while on death row."

According to the report, Japan is breaching its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in its treatment of prisoners on death row. Conditions in prisons are harsh and prisoners on death row are especially vulnerable to developing mental health problems due to being imprisoned in isolation with little human contact.

Amnesty International is concerned that prisoners are not allowed to talk to one another – a restriction enforced by strict isolation. Contact with family members, lawyers and others can be restricted to as little as five minutes at a time.

Apart from visits to the toilet, prisoners are not allowed to move around the cell and must remain seated. Death row prisoners are less likely than other prisoners to have access to fresh air and light and more likely to suffer additional punishments because of behaviour that may infringe the strict rules imposed on them.

"These inhuman conditions increase a prisoner’s anxiety and anguish and in many cases push prisoners over the edge and into a state of mental illness," said James Welsh.

The report calls on the government of Japan to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty. It also urges the government of Japan to review all cases where mental illness may be a relevant factor, to ensure that prisoners with mental illness are not executed and to improve conditions for prisoners so that prisoners will not suffer declining mental health or the development of serious mental illness.

Japan: Hanging by a thread: Mental health and the death penalty in Japan

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Index Number: ASA 22/005/2009
Date Published: 10 September 2009
Categories: Japan

The use of the death penalty is in decline globally. Japan is one of the few industrialized countries to continue to use it, hanging a small number of prisoners each year. This report discusses the legal basis for exempting mentally ill prisoners from the death penalty and documents the situation faced by such prisoners on death row in Japan. It calls on the authorities to ensure that mentally ill prisoners are not executed and to implement a moratorium on the death penalty.


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