Awareness: Japan has capital punishment

A look into Japan’s death sentence

Capital punishment or the death penalty exists in Japan and it is still used. This may come as a shock to people who are excited by the ‘strangeness’ of all things Japanese but it is a reality.


The world seems to be moving away from capital and corporal punishment and there is heavy debate about this- no matter the culture or religious background of the country.

Japan has received criticism, sometimes rightfully so, for many things. The most controversial is political motivation. Executions in 2018 were at a 10 year high at 18 and the reasoning for this simple: it may be hard to carry out executions in 2019 due to the abdication and crowning of the emperor, and a reluctance to carry out an execution when the Olympics are taking place.

Additionally, under Japanese law, commended prisoners are not classified as prisoners so the conditions they are kept in are not reported on. Japan has come under fire from Amnesty International on several occasions because of the way it treats prisoners.

The process

In practice, the death penalty is only given to multiple murders or murders with additional unspeakable actions e.g. murder kidnapping etc. In addition to this, there are a further 9 factors which will affect the sentencing:

  1. Degree of viciousness- was the person ‘put out of their misery’ or was it a messy affair?
  2. Motive- revenge, money, love, just because?
  3. How the crime was committed; especially the manner in which the victim was killed. (also looks into planning and additional factors)
  4. Outcome of the crime; especially the number of victims.
  5. Sentiments of the bereaved family members. (The most important one on the list).
  6. Impact of the crime on Japanese society.
  7. Defendant’s age (in Japan, the age of majority is 20). (18+ can be given a death sentence)
  8. Defendant’s previous criminal record. (first time or long history)
  9. Degree of remorse shown by the defendant. (does depend on the person and the crime)

This was something that I studied in detail during my time a NUFS and it has always stuck with me. In theory there are safeguards and at a sentencing level it does work. Additionally, the death sentence is rarely imposed and the Japanese BAR association want to:

…  the JFBA hereby strongly protests the executions conducted today [02/08/2019], and reiterates its stance that the Government should immediately suspend all executions [moratorium], looking towards the total abolition of the death penalty system in Japan by 2020.

Yutaro Kikuchi, President (August 2, 2019)
Japan Federation of Bar Associations

The JFBA posts in English, Japanese, and Chinese and it is a brilliant resource which does report on “unpopular” topics- if noting else, please do check out their ‘opinion’ posts.

Alas, the death sentence seems like a convenient option for the Japanese government to be seen to be doing something.

Public opinion

Public opinion is in favor of the death sentence and it is logical that the family of the victim seek the harshest punishment possible- whether this is always the correct choice is another conversation.

Fun fact: trial by jury was only introduced in 2009 in Japan (please re-read that statement. The line in ‘ a trial by your peers’ goes back to 1215 in UK law, to the foundation of the US (it’s the 7th amendment), was used in the ancient world (Greece and Rome) but it is only 10 old in Japan.

Most Japanese are in favor of the death sentence and even though there are campaigns against it, it does not seem likely to change any time soon.

Another fun fact: condemned prisoners sentenced before 2009 have been campaigning for a retrial and to be tried by their peers- most appeals for a retrial has been denied.

The Death chamber

The actual process of execution is carried out by hanging using the ‘long drop’ method to snap the neck.

The death warrant is signed by the minister of justice and once signed the condemned will be executed within 5 days. The problem with this system is that no-one is told. The prisoner is only told the morning of his execution that he as, at best, 15 hours left in this world.

Death chambers are located across Japan, but the 3 that are used the most are in Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya (which are the 1st, 3rd and 4th biggest cities ion Japan).

A clash of culture

Japan is an extremely Buddhist country and many laws reflect Buddhist teachings. The death sentence was initially introduced from China (along with a writing system, culture, law, philosophy etc) before being abolished until 1180.

Even though Buddhism teaching the scanty of life and the importance of preserving life, executions until the Meiji period (1873) were cruel and unusual and the meaning for this is said to be Confucianism- where your position in society must be protected and any perceived threat was dealt with. Think of the witch hunts- and you know how they got confessions, treated the accused and just what rights they (did not) have- this was how the condemned were treated in Japan.

In modern Japan, only murder gets a death sentence. But, is this still too much, or is it too little? What do you think?

Thank you for reading and happy exploring.

Disposition in Japan

Definition: disposal of human remains in Japan

Time for another jolly post but this time about disposition. But why talk about such a topic during awareness month? Simply put, it is a problem that no-one talks about.

Global disposition options

The reason to address this first, it to highlight the differences between Japan and the rest of the world.

When considering disposition, 2 options usually come to mind: burial or cremation.


There are 2 main types of burial: natural burial and traditional burial. Natural burial is the type of burial that has been practiced for generations within the Jewish and Islamic communities and is slowly become more accepted in the western World- even though it has only been about 100 years since it was commonly practiced in the West.

A natural burial is simply burying a body, without any sort of preservation (embalming) in a grave to allow it to decompose and return to nature. In Islamic tradition, a body is washed, shrouded and buried within 24 hours.

Traditional burial (usually but not always) involves emblaming the body to help preserve it, placed into either a coffin or casket (yes there is a difference) and placed into a traditional cemetery with a burial vault (mostly in the US) or into the soil.

Side note: embalming fluid is highly carcinogenic and this fluid enters the water table…how nice.


The other main option is cremation. Cremation is the process in which all organic material (the body) and only non-organic calcium oxide and phosphorous pent-oxide remain. This process takes approximately 1-2 hours and in most countries, the bone fragments are, by law, ground up into the ash that we all know.

While there are different cremation services on offer, the simplist is known as direct cremation and just involves an organisation picking up the body, cremating it and returning the ashes.

The cost does differ on country but you are looking at approximately 1000 USD, 500 GBP plus, or 50,000 JPY (in Yokohama).

Other global options
  • Alkaline hydrolysis: dissolving the body in an alkaline solution. Any organic material is not released into the air and breathed in by others, but instead go into the water system.
  • Burial at sea: weighing down the body and allowing it to decompose in the ocean.
  • Sky burial: breaking up the body and allowing it to be scavenged by animals- another way to “give back to nature”
  • Human composting: allowing the body to be turned into compost and being reused
  • Immurement: being placed into a mausoleum or tomb
  • Mummification: a body is prepared and preserved to make it last a long time
  • Plasternisation: think of the body works exhibit. It replaces body fats and fluid with plastic and it preserves the body.
  • Donation: to either help future doctors (medical school use), help scientific research (including body farms and biomedical research, and military use (weapons testing – including biological)
  • Cryonics: AKA cryogenics the art of freezing the body for possible future revival
  • cannibalism*

*There are cultures that do practice cannibalism- sometimes for positives reasons (to keep them within the community) or negative reasons (because they could).

Disposition in Japan

Even though, legally, there are 2 options that are considered, in practice there is only 1: cremation.

While the UK’s cremation rate is about 70%, France’s at 20%, the cremation rate in Japan is above 99.5%- which is a fantastic number. Burrial is legal but is forbidden in most prefectures or as per local by-laws. Exceptions can be made for religious reasons but new graveyards are forbidden from burying bodies.

Problems with cremation in Japan

Japan has a severe aging population and over 1,000,000 people die each year in Japan. The problem is that even at the largest crematorium, there is still a “waiting list” for corpses.

There are more bodies than crematoria (the plural of crematorium) available and during the traditional Japanese funeral, the family waits in the “lobby” (actually is the funeral hall) while the body is being cremated. Then then pick out the bone fragments from the warm remains and place it in an urn.

Fun fact: this is the only time in Japan when it is acceptable for more than 1 chopstick to move an item at once. 2 people may need to work together to move a large bone fragment into the urn. So, if you do this in public, it may remind someone of this situation and cause flashbacks, so just don’t.

Alternatively, there is a growing trend: 直送 lit. direct delivery or direct cremation- as this is a much cheaper option. It is also the option for those that are from low income backgrounds, live or die alone or the homeless (their funerals are organised by a civil servant).


A traditional Japanese funeral service, not including cremation or the burial plot, ranges from 500,000 JPY to 2,000,000. Cremation usually ranges from 70,000 to 170,000 JPY and if a grave is wanted, prices usually range from 350,000 to 2,000,000 JPY. The final gaijin price range for everything is 920,000 JPY to 4,170,00 JPY (plus tax). This is a massive price: 8,400 USD to 38,000 JPY- considering the average price for a ‘massive’ funeral in Japan in $5,000- Japan is extraordinarily more expensive.

While it is cheaper if you do not require a plot or take the cremation price from Yokohama (12,000 JPY for residents and 50,000 for non-residents), or choose a small family orientated wake, you are sill looking at 3000+ USD.

Please note, I have NOT talked about the annual fees for grave maintenance, the headstone and other fees e.g. food and drink at funerals etc.

Other options for cremains (cremated remains)

  • Internment in a home shrine (extremely traditional)
  • Internment in a sky scraper grave
  • Interment in another mass memorial
  • Interment is a communal grave (extremely cheap option)
  • Interment in a company grave
  • spread on the winds (not really practiced in Japan)
  • Shot into space (a small part of you only)
  • up-cycled into jewelry, pictures etc

The Japanese problem

With the amount of dead bodies, and with the limited space available, there is no-where for the dead to go. The tradition of the family plot is unfeasible for those who live in major cities- even those within the industry, do not wish for a traditional Japanese funeral as it would put “too much pressure on their families”.

Cremation is the norm within Japan and will continue to be so- it was the way the Buddha was given back to nature after all. It is just strange that a funeral is so much more expensive than a wedding.

The one positive to Japanese death culture is simple: there is active death awareness. Unlike in the West, death is a taboo topic but with Japan’s death culture and festival (お盆- Obon which takes place in August) is is an active part of life.

Thank you for reading and happy exploring.

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