The Pressure of Death Row: Corrections Officers’ Thoughts on the Death Penalty


A 2021 Amnesty International study found Japan to be one of just 18 countries worldwide executing prisoners. A former prison guard looks at the death penalty as it is implemented in Japan today, examining its impact on all those involved.

On July 26, 2022, a death sentence was carried out at the Tokyo Detention House in Katsushika, Tokyo.

The corrections officers at the facility drew on their experience and saw this event coming in advance, allowing themselves to mentally prepare themselves. This was because a little over two weeks prior something unprecedented had occurred: the shocking murder of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō while he was delivering a speech on July 8 in the city of Nara in support of a local candidate in the House of Councillors election.

In the past, whenever a major event took place that involved injury or death, it was common for an execution to take place shortly afterward. On December 21, 2021, for example, three inmates were put to death. It is likely that these sentences were carried out in the wake of the August 6 mass knife attack and attempted arson on the Odakyū train line in Tokyo and the attack on the Keiō train line on October 31 that same year.

The corrections officers at the Tokyo Detention House, where a large number of death row inmates are held, speculated on who might be next. The July 2018 executions of 13 death row inmates who had been convicted of crimes they had committed as members of Aum Shinrikyō were carried out during and after the soccer World Cup in Russia, and so this time rumors had spread within the detention house that the next inmate to be executed might be Katō Tomohiro, convicted of the June 2008 massacre in Tokyo’s Akihabara district in which he drove a truck into a crowd of pedestrians, exited the vehicle, and then stabbed a number of others, killing 7 and injuring 10 more.

Their suspicions turned out to be correct, as Katō was in fact the next inmate to have his sentence carried out. But before delving into the mood among the corrections officers at Tokyo Detention House at the time of Katō’s execution, let us first examine the procedures involved in carrying out the death penalty in Japan.

Under Enormous Mental Strain

Katō was sentenced to death in 2011 and his sentence was upheld on appeal in February 2015. Once a sentence is determined, the Public Prosecutors Office submits an application to execute the death penalty to the Ministry of Justice within four months. The MOJ then issues an order to carry out the sentence. Criminal law in Japan stipulates that “the death penalty must be carried out within six months,” but in fact this was not followed in Katō’s case, as he was incarcerated for over seven years prior to his execution.

On Friday, July 22, 2022 the MOJ issued via its Criminal Affairs Bureau an order based on a draft of the order to execute the death penalty. The prosecutor general then directed the warden of the Tokyo Detention House to carry out Katō’s execution on Tuesday, July 26. Corrections officers at the house made all the preparations required to successfully carry out the execution, arranging to have a coffin delivered by the date of execution, preparing the noose, inspecting the equipment, checking the procedure manual, and carrying out trial runs.

Executions are the most difficult and distressing of all the corrections officers’ duties, and they must be carried out flawlessly. As these operations require mastery of a particular set of skills, a special security force under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice division handling prisoner affairs is charged with the responsibility of physically carrying out the execution. The force consists of approximately 15 corrections officers, including a facility’s chief guard, deputy chief, and the guards under their supervision. These individuals are also directly involved in handling the daily activities of the prisoners on death row, including exercising and bathing. Thus, they regularly converse with the inmates and have physical contact with them when changing their clothing or conducting physical inspections each time they exit and return to their isolation cells. As a result, these corrections officers have a relatively close relationship with each inmate.

Not all corrections officers on the security force are involved in the actual execution of the death penalty. Other assignments on the day of execution include the following:

  • Accompanying the inmate from the isolation cell to the execution site
  • Acting as a witness when the order to execute is communicated
  • Placing handcuffs on the inmate, tying a white cloth bag over his or her head, bringing the inmate to the gallows platform, and placing the noose around the inmate’s neck
  • After the execution has been carried out: Removing the noose, washing the corpse after inspection, dressing the corpse in garments appropriate to the deceased’s religion, and placing the corpse in the coffin
  • Accompanying the prison chaplain/counselor during the wake and funeral
  • Placing the coffin in a hearse
  • Saluting and seeing off the deceased in formation when the coffin leaves the prison premises

It goes without saying that the act of killing another human being is the most mentally distressing of all the corrections officers’ duties.

The “button room” in the Tokyo Detention House. This is where three corrections officers simultaneously press three buttons, one of which releases the gallows trap. In order to reduce the mental distress experienced by these corrections officers, they are not informed which of the three buttons actually releases the trap. (© Reuters)
The “button room” in the Tokyo Detention House. This is where three corrections officers simultaneously press three buttons, one of which releases the gallows trap. In order to reduce the mental distress experienced by these corrections officers, they are not informed which of the three buttons actually releases the trap. (© Reuters)

Informing Inmates They Are to Die

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations has the abolition of the death penalty as one of its goals. The group focuses on the stipulation that the death penalty cannot be carried out during the retrial of a case, and actively supports inmates on death row filing for retrials. Sixty-one of the 106 inmates currently on death row in Japan are in the process of requesting retrials of their cases. In the past, it was only death row inmates who made claims of false charges that requested retrials, and as a result prison guards could foresee with relative accuracy the order in which inmates would be executed. As a general rule, it was the same order in which they had been convicted. Now, however, it is nearly impossible to predict who will be executed next.

The law stipulates that the death penalty is to be executed in a manner that is not open to the public and that the utmost secrecy is to be maintained. Currently, inmates are brought to the prison chaplain’s room, which is adjacent to the execution room, one hour before the time the sentence is to be carried out, and the warden or a representative of the warden communicates the order to carry out the execution after the identity of the inmate is confirmed.

The procedure was different until around half a century ago, though. Then an inmate was informed of the fact that their sentence was to be carried out one or two days prior to the execution in order to give family members a chance to see the inmate one last time. At that time, the handling of inmates on death row was considered the most important task prisons were charged with, and under the principle of “correctional treatment,” it was considered unfair to the inmate and his or her family members if no opportunity were given to reflect upon the crime and develop a sense of regret. Inmates were put into groups that engaged in recreational activities, cultural activities, and social and emotional education sessions together. They also were encouraged to reflect on what they had done through individual guidance sessions. Attempts were also made to understand the mental state of death row inmates through, for example, direct meetings with the warden.

In November 2021, two death row inmates filed a lawsuit with the Osaka District Court in which they demanded payment of damages totaling approximately ¥20 million from the government of Japan for mental distress based on the claim that “informing death row inmates that their death sentence is to be carried out on the day of their deaths is unconstitutional and inhumane.” The evidence the plaintiffs presented was a set of audio recordings related to an execution at the Osaka Detention House made in secrecy in February 1955, which included conversations that took place from the time the warden communicated that the death sentence was to be carried out until the execution two days later. At the time, a nonpartisan group in the Japanese Diet was moving toward submitting a bill to abolish the death penalty and seeking to energize debate about the subject. Tamai Sakurō was warden at the Osaka Detention House for six years, during which 46 inmates were put to death there; he instructed the head of the facility’s education division to make the tapes, as he viewed the execution that was to take place shortly before he left his post as the last chance he would have to publicize what executions were actually like.

In 1970, the policy for handling death row inmates was changed from the group to the individual basis. This meant that death row inmates would no longer engage in prison work in groups as do the inmates in the general population, but would instead be forced to spend their time in prison in solitude. At this same time, the policy regarding when inmates were informed their sentences were to be carried out was changed from the day before the execution was carried out to the day itself. These changes were made as a result of a large number of suspects from the Chūkakuha (Revolutionary Communist League National Committee), the Kakumaruha (Revolutionary Marxist Faction of the Japan Revolutionary Communist League), and other extremist groups entering the prison system and the resulting difficulty in securing the human and financial resources required to deal with inmates who displayed a defiant attitude and were therefore difficult to handle.

Corrections Officers’ State of Mind

Conversations with a corrections officer who agreed to be interviewed for this article revealed some of the state of mind of those in this profession when interacting with death row prisoners.

“Since we do not really provide them with any rehabilitation services, I do not know what they are feeling,” said this corrections officer. “We try not to instigate them in any way, and so we tend to treat them carefully, the way one handles a swollen part of the body. We are careful and considerate of them.”

Regarding the fact that 50 or so years ago prisoners used to be informed they were to be put to death a day or two before it was to be done, while today the announcement comes immediately before the execution, this corrections officer said, “It’s probably unlikely that this could happen, but if we claim to be dealing with them carefully then I think they should be informed the day before the sentence is to be carried out.”

Currently, detention centers practice what is known as “total individual handling” of inmates. Their cells are isolation cells, and they are under 24-hour surveillance via cameras in order to prevent escape and suicide attempts. The surveillance cameras are also important to the safety of inmates as they can be used to detect health problems, such as strokes, as soon as possible. However, in 2018 an inmate who was serving a sentence at the Kumamoto Detention House filed a lawsuit against the national government in which he demanded compensatory damages based on his claim that the surveillance camera in his isolation cell was an invasion of privacy. The Kumamoto District Court ruled that the facility was in partial violation of the law and ordered the national government to pay the inmate damages.

In response to this, the corrections officer who agreed to be interviewed for this article said, “Since death row inmates are destined to be put to death, they have to be kept in a healthy state both physically and mentally. This is why I think surveillance cameras are necessary.”

Although people have claimed many times in the past that hanging as a method of execution is cruel and therefore unconstitutional, the courts have consistently upheld the constitutionality of this method. Nevertheless, this method of execution has remained unchanged since 1873. In the United States, for example, hanging has been replaced with the electric chair, the gas chamber, and lethal injection. In Thailand, a shift was made from firing squad to lethal injection, following the lead of the United States. In Japan, though, making changes to the method of execution is not even under consideration.

It cannot be denied that the current method of hanging places an enormous psychological burden on corrections officers. When asked what he thought of changing the method of execution as was done in Thailand, the corrections officer said: “Lethal injection would be a good method for Japan to adopt. Hanging places a great deal of guilt and pressure on corrections officers that is not easy to overcome, as it creates the impression that the corrections officer has killed another human being with his own hands. It haunts our dreams for years to come.”

While not all corrections officers may feel this way, many of them certainly have this same feeling in the backs of their minds as they perform their daily duties.

The gallows trap in the execution room at the Tokyo Detention House. (© Reuters)
The gallows trap in the execution room at the Tokyo Detention House. (© Reuters)

Capital Punishment Induces Murder

Only approximately 1% of criminals convicted of murder and similar crimes that are subject to the death penalty actually have the ultimate penalty imposed. In spite of the fact that 99% of victims’ families want the strictest possible sentence to be imposed, generally this is a prison sentence rather than execution. This is because judges are restricted by extremely rigorous conditions under which they can pass a sentence of death. These conditions include the number of people killed, as well as the circumstances surrounding the crime. As these conditions are widely known, some people intentionally commit random mass killings precisely because they want to receive the death penalty.

Instead of preventing crime, in fact the death penalty induces some people to commit mass murder. The results of public opinion polls and the feelings of victims’ family members compiled as part of the ongoing debate over whether to abolish the death penalty lead to the conclusion that it should be maintained. However, this result is in conflict with reality. Many of those serving prison sentences for murder become contrite and repentant while in prison, and there are stories indicating that many of these inmates want to pay the victims’ families compensation out of the earnings they receive for their prison labor.

The opinion poll on the death penalty that is conducted by the Cabinet Office every five years has found in each of the four polls conducted since 2004 that over 80% of the public say they think the death penalty is “necessary.” However, the public needs to also discuss the death penalty in the context of whether it has a preventive effect on violent crime based on the currently available facts.

What is your opinion about the death penalty?

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: An execution room where hangings are carried out. Beyond the glass window is the room from which an inspector and the warden observe. The underground room below the gallows can be seen through the opened trap door. © Reuters.)

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