Two Japanese death-row prisoners have filed a lawsuit alleging that the country’s long-criticized practice of notifying prisoners of their execution the same day they are to be put to death is “inhumane” and violates the nation’s constitution.

The suit, filed in Osaka District Court November 4, 2021, alleges that the day-of-execution notice, given just hours before the death-row prisoner is hanged, provides no time to contact their lawyers to file legal challenges to the execution and is psychologically torturous. The prisoners, whose names were not disclosed, seek to end same-day execution notification and demand compensatory damages for emotional distress in the amount of 22 million yen, roughly equivalent to $194,000.

“Death row prisoners live in fear every morning that that day will be their last. It’s extremely inhumane,” the prisoners’ lawyer, Yutaka Ueda, said. “Overseas, prisoners are given time to contemplate the end of their lives and mentally prepare. It’s as if Japan is trying as hard as possible not to let anybody know.”

The Japanese Justice Ministry had no comment about the merits of the suit, saying only that it would respond in court.

Amnesty International has repeatedly condemned Japan’s execution procedures as being “shrouded in secrecy.” In a 2009 report, the human rights group said the practice constituted “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment that caused prisoners to develop “significant mental illness.”

Japanese death row prisoners know that, at any time, the arrival of a prison officer at their cell could signal that they are the subject of a death warrant authorizing their execution within hours, the report said. “Some live like this year after year, sometimes for decades.”

“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,” Kate Allen, then the director of Amnesty International UK, told The Guardian.

Japan’s secrecy practices have drawn fire in recent U.N. human rights resolutions. In December 2016, the U.N. General Assembly added an anti-secrecy provision to its regular resolution calling for a moratorium on executions, saying that transparency was essential to assess whether countries were administering their death penalty laws in compliance with international human rights standards.

On October 5, 2021, the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that “[c]alls upon States that have not yet abolished the death penalty and that carry out executions either in secret or with little or no prior warning to end these practices, which impair the ability of the convicted individual and family members to prepare for death and can amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Japan and the United States are the only industrialized country in the world to permit the death penalty. During its July 2020 to January 2021 spree in which 13 prisoners were put to death, the U.S. federal government conducted four post-midnight executions after their execution dates had passed, pursuant to hastily issued same-day execution notices of questionable legal and constitutional validity.

Japan’s Justice Ministry reported that there were 112 prisoners on the nation’s death row as of November 5, 2021. The country last conducted an execution in 2019.


Yuto Yoneda, Inmates sue state over exe­cu­tions imposed on day of noti­fi­ca­tion, The Asahi Shimbun, November 5, 2021; Elaine Lies, Japan death row inmates sue over inhu­mane’ same-day noti­fi­ca­tion, Reuters, November 4, 2021; Adela Suliman, Japanese death row inmates sue over same-day noti­fi­ca­tion of exe­cu­tions, Washington Post, November 5, 2021; Justin McCurry, Death row inmates sue over Japan’s brief notice of exe­cu­tion, The Guardian, November 5, 2021; Justin McCurry, Prisoners dri­ven insane on Japan’s death row, says Amnesty, The Guardian, September 102009.