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August 24, 2007

Japanese Hangings

As I'm resolutely anti-capital punishment I'm of course not going to be in favour of the Japanese hangings this morning. But this is, at least to my mind, truly barbaric:

In keeping with Japanese practice, the prisoners were hanged in secret, without independent witnesses, and after years in solitary confinement. The condemned men were told of their imminent deaths only this morning; their relatives and lawyers were informed after the event.

Each and every day, perhaps for decades, waking up not knowing whether it's breakfast or the hangman about to come through the door.

Segawa’s death sentence was confirmed six years ago, but Nobuo Oda, who was convicted of a murder and arson in 1966, had been on death row for 37 years. Masaru Okunishi, who was convicted of poisoning five people in 1969, has been on death row for 38 of his 81 years.


August 24, 2007 in Law | Permalink


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Not sure how much difference it makes really that the condemned aren't given much warning. Here, given the occasional last minute pardon the condemned really doesn't know he's going to die until the needle's in (or the trap door opens if there's still anyplace that hangs). I seem to recall, too, reading in the Brit report on capital punishment (1969, I think...the one that recommended hanging as the most merciful) that the condemned there were also given very little notice.

Then, too, imagine they don't send the hangman in in lieu of breakfast but instead give notice with dinner the night before. Instead of wondering and worrying, "Is today the morning I die?" the condemned worries "Is tonight the night they tell me I die tomorrow?" Not a lot of difference, really.

Posted by: Tom Kratman | Aug 24, 2007 10:38:21 AM

"that the condemned there were also given very little notice."

That wasn't so - I can recall those times. The place, day and hour of prospective hangings was well publicised - at least in peace time - which invariably lead to public demonstrations of varying kinds outside the relevant prison.

Posted by: Bob B | Aug 24, 2007 11:23:41 AM

" The place, day and hour of prospective hangings was well publicised - at least in peace time - which invariably lead to public demonstrations of varying kinds outside the relevant prison."

The whole rigmarole was, and is, sick. I don't give a toss about murderers, but I do give a toss about innocent people convicted of murder, and I do give a toss about the effect this barbarism has on society. It appeals to the same sick part of the brain that the Roman games tickled.

Posted by: Kay Tie | Aug 24, 2007 11:40:10 AM

"Each and every day, perhaps for decades, waking up not knowing whether it's breakfast or the hangman about to come through the door."

They do this in Thailand too, basically for Buddhist reasons. Firstly, if you know the date of the death then you focus on that rather than on your reincarnation; secondly, the anguish you suffer through not knowing your date of death settles your karma, and increases your chance of a better reincarnation. I don't know if the same reasoning applies to Japan.

Posted by: jamie | Aug 24, 2007 12:51:40 PM

Not to be told the date of your death is arguably preferable than to know it.

The truly "barbaric" element in all of this is not the murderers being unaware of their dates of execution, but rather the crimes that the murderers committed:

In 1990, Takezawa killed a 68-year old man whom he mistakenly believed was having an affair with his wife. He took him into a forest, forced him to write a fake suicide note, strangled him with a rope, and set fire to his car. Three years later, for the same reason, he and an accomplice broke into a house and stabbed to death a man and his wife before burning down their house.

Btw, the old argument against capital punishment - that innocents might be executed - grows progressively weaker as technology advances and we have DNA-testing, CCTV evidence, mobile phone location records etc that make error extremely unlikely - indeed impossible in practical terms, if the necessary evidence is stringent enough.

Capital punishment is justifiable because it is retributive, deters and eliminates highly dangerous individuals.

Posted by: paul ilc | Aug 24, 2007 1:26:38 PM

There is no evidence from anywhere, ever, that capital punishment deters any more than a long jail sentence: anyone who would be deterred from murder by capital punishment would also be deterred by the prospect of 10-years-to-life behind bars; those who are not deterred by such a prospect either think they're too clever to get caught or aren't thinking rationally (it would appear that your Japanese chap above fell into the latter category, to put it mildly).

Eliminates, yes, I'll give you that one.

Retributive a good thing? Well, fair enough if you're stuck in the stone age; I'm with Jesus rather than Leviticus myself...

Posted by: john b | Aug 24, 2007 1:31:40 PM

"It appeals to the same sick part of the brain that the Roman games tickled."

As I recall it, the case of Derek Bentley in 1953, from near where I live now, was what finally turned me as a young lad against the death penalty:

"Derek William Bentley (30 June 1933 – 28 January 1953) was hanged at the age of 19 for a murder committed by a friend, creating a cause célèbre and leading to a 45-year-long successful campaign to win him a posthumous pardon. . . "

Since then, there have been far too many other recognised miscarriages of justice to render the reintroduction of capital punishment a realistic proposition in practical politics, I'm pleased to say:

Until 1868, judicial hangings in Britain were public events, apparently on the rationale that public witness enhanced the deterrent effect.

"29th of May 1868. Parliament passes the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act, ending public hanging as such, and requiring executions to be carried out behind prison walls. However the Act did allow the sheriff of the county in which the execution took place the discretion to admit newspaper reporters and other witnesses, including the victim’s relatives to the hanging."

Many accounts of hangings in the public domain make it obvious that the events had long since become - as Kay suggests - a form of popular family entertainment. The classic study of the enthusiasm for hanging in England and Wales as a judicial punishment, available at judicial discretion, for a wide range of crimes, is VAC Gatrell: The Hanging Tree (OUP, 1996)

"Some thirty-five thousand people were condemned to death in England and Wales between 1770 and 1830, and seven thousand were ultimately executed, the majority convicted of crimes such as burglary, horse theft, or forgery. Mostly poor trades people, these terrified men and women would suffer excruciating death before large and excited crowds."

However, our forbears were wiser than is often supposed. When hanging was a lawful punishment for such a wide range of crimes, they came to appreciate that this generated a system of perverse incentives - hence the traditional adage: Might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.

There was also the related challenging and practical question of an appropriate disincentive to deter truly heinous crimes such as threatening the life of the sovereign or plotting treason against the state. Accordingly, an alternative, suitably discouraging means of execution was devised for such convictions: Hanging, drawing and quartering.

As a concession for consideration of public decency when executions were regarded as popular entertainment, women were to be burned at the stake instead but sensibilities otherwise inhibit me from posting further details of the process:

My favourite and benign story from the long history of public executions in Britain comes from an engaging entry for: Tyburn - a principal site for public executions in London located close to where Marble Arch now stands - from that truly wonderful resource: Weinreb and Hibbert (eds): The London Encyclopaedia (1993):

In 1447 five men had already been hanged, cut down while still alive and stripped ready for quartering when their pardon arrived but the hangman refused to return their clothes - a legitimate perk of his job - so they were obliged to walk home naked.

Posted by: Bob B | Aug 24, 2007 2:06:23 PM

Another thing or two, if there's one insight we gain from that story about the aborted hanging, drawing and quartering at Tyburn in 1447, it is that the traditional regard for "custom and practice" in British trade unionism has deep historic roots.

Btw on the benefits of a classical education and the perennial appeal of Roman games, in the news today from America:

"Evidence gathered by animal welfare organisations suggests that, despite the fact dog fighting is illegal in all 50 US states, it is both widespread and growing.

"An estimated 40,000 people in the US are thought to be involved in 'professional' dog fighting, using some 250,000 dogs."

Plus ca change . .

Posted by: Bob B | Aug 24, 2007 2:38:09 PM

john b:

Evidence does not mean "inarguable proof, in and of itself." Rather, it is "that which _tends_ to show." So, for example, and these are true examples, the murder rate has declined in the US since restoration, even as it has increased in the United Kingdom since abolition. This is evidence, not proof, not dispositive, just evidence that capital punishment works to deter or incapacitate in ways that jail does not (since the UK has had jail since abolition and the US had jail before restoration). Are there arguments that other factors are involved in that? Clearly, and those too are _evidence_, but only that, that capital punishment is nothing uniquely effective.

Posted by: Tom Kratman | Aug 24, 2007 2:38:57 PM

TK - if you look at state-by-state results, there is no such correlation within the US. Changes in the homicide rate are closely correlated with changes in other violent crime rates (other violent crimes which didn't ever, in post-WII UK or US [*] carry the death penalty); once you adjust for that, there is no correlation between murder rates and capital punishment or its abolition.

I'd be willing to accept that the reintroduction of the death penalty is likely to go alongside a wider 'clamping down on crime', more authoritarian criminal justice policy, as in New York. But again, murders were starting to fall alongside other crime in NY before the death penalty was reintroduced, and it had no impact on the rate of change.

[*] yes, OK, kidnapping and rape in some states, but rarely enforced.

Posted by: john b | Aug 24, 2007 3:15:46 PM


Have some numbers on that or are we merely speaking of another Amnesty International or other anti-capital punishment group soundbite?

Here are some numbers from Richard Clark's site:

"As stated above, Texas carries out far more executions than any other American state (between 1982 and 2000 it executed 254 men and 2 women) and there is now clear evidence of a deterrent effect. My friend Rob Gallagher (author of Before the Needles website) has done an analysis of the situation using official FBI homicide figures. Between 1980 and 2000, there were 41,783 murders in Texas
In 1980 alone, 2,392 people died by homicide, giving it a murder rate of 16.88 for every 100,000 of the population. (The U.S. average murder rate in 1980 was 10.22, falling to 5.51 per 100,000 by the year 2000. Over the same period, Texas had a population increase of 32%, up 6,681,991 from 14,169,829 to 20,851,820. There were only 1,238 murders in 2000 giving it a rate of 5.94, just slightly higher than the national rate which had dropped to 5.51/100,000. In the base year (1980), there was one murder for every 5,924 Texans. By the year 2000, this had fallen to one murder for every 16,843 people or 35.2% of the 1980 value. If the 1980 murder rate had been allowed to maintain, there would have been, by interpolation, a total of 61,751 murders. On this basis, 19,968 people are not dead today who would have potentially been homicide victims, representing 78 lives saved for each one of the 256 executions. The overall U.S. murder rate declined by 54% during the period. Therefore, to achieve a reasonable estimate of actual lives saved, we must multiply 19,968 by 0.54 giving a more realistic figure of 10,783 lives saved or 42 lives per execution. Even if this estimate was off by a factor of 10 (which is highly unlikely), there would still be over 1,000 innocent lives saved or 4 lives per execution. One can see a drop in the number of murders in 1983, the year after Charlie Brooks became the first person to be executed by lethal injection in America.
In 2000, Texas had 1,238 murders (an average of 23.8 murders per week), but in 2001 only 31 people were given the death sentence and 17 prisoners executed (down from 40 the previous year). This equates to a capital sentencing rate of 2.5% or one death sentence for every 40 murders."


"The rates for unlawful killings in Britain have more than doubled since abolition of capital punishment in 1964 from 0.68 per 100,000 of the population to 1 .42 per 100,000. Home Office figures show around unlawful killings 300 in 1964, which rose to 565 in 1994 and 833 in 2004. The principal methods of homicide were fights involving fists and feet, poisoning, strangling, firearms and cutting by glass or a broken bottle. 72% of the victims were male with young men being most at risk. Convictions for the actual crime of murder (as against manslaughter and other unlawful killings) have been rising inexorably. Between 1900 and 1965 they ran at an average of 29 per year. There were 57 in 1965 – the first year of abolition. Ten years later the total for the year was 107 which rose to 173 by 1985 and 214 in 1995. The figure for 2005 is 280. There have been 71 murders committed by people who have been released after serving "life sentences" in the period between 1965 and 1998 according to Home Office statistics. Some 6,300 people are currently serving sentences of “life in prison” for murder."

But, again, none of that really matters. You said "no evidence." As demonstrated, there is evidence. There is also contrary evidence. You're just perhaps a bit confused about what the word, evidence, means.

Posted by: Tom Kratman | Aug 24, 2007 3:31:53 PM

Abolitionists often seem to be saying that either (a) no punishment of any kind ever deters a person from committing a crime, or (b) capital punishment is unique in that it has no deterrent effect while other forms of punishment do. (a) is clearly false; and (b) is highly implausible.

The concept of punishment involves three elements: retribution, rehabilitation and restoration. The Gramscian left-liberals who have taken over the criminal justice system in the UK have tried to make all punishment purely rehabilitative, because "society is to blame", and thereby they have elevated the 'rights' of the perpetrator above those of the victim(s). Yet the majority view appears to be that appropriate punishment (retribution) and restoration should take priority over rehabilitation.

Tim adds: I'm an abolitionist for capital punishment and I am simply because I believe that it is immoral.

Posted by: paul ilc | Aug 24, 2007 4:09:41 PM


I tend to look at it, philosophically, from two separate points of view. One is that, high sounding words in the Declaration of Independence aside, there's no natural right to life. If we have a right to life it's gained contractually by virtue of being within a given society. It seems to me wrong to force someone to remain in that society just as it seems to me that a person can announce they're out of it, not following the rules and not subject to their protection. Murder's one way to announce it. Having done so, no right to life.

The other POV is that we may legitimately use deadly force to deter or prevent certain crimes. What we can do on our own behalf surely society can also do on our behalf as our agent.

If you want an interesting little intellectual exercise, imagine that the process of a capital trial is not to determine punishment, but merely to determine if someone is or is not still within society. In the latter case, no state ordered execution...he is merely declared to be beyond the bounds of society's protection and may be killed on sight, by anyone of a mind to do so.

See, I sympathise with those who are against capital punishment in that it does, after a fashion, make them killers. (No, not murderers, but killers all the same since one is responsible for what one's agent does on one's behalf.) That approach, total removal of societally given civil rights, clears them of the responsibility.

Posted by: Tom Kratman | Aug 24, 2007 4:29:21 PM

"Each and every day, perhaps for decades, waking up not knowing whether it's breakfast or the hangman about to come through the door."

Don't get me wrong, though it does not bother me that they hang, if I were in charge it would be three weeks after the sentence. But I have to say their situation in not knowing the time of their death is scarcely unique!

Posted by: Natalie Solent | Aug 24, 2007 4:48:41 PM

At least those who are executed cannot murder again. The problem with many of the abolitionists is not only are they against the death penalty, they don't believe in a life sentence or anything like it.

The UK criminal justice system sucks.

Posted by: bill | Aug 24, 2007 5:25:23 PM

Tim adds: I'm an abolitionist for capital punishment and I am simply because I believe that it is immoral.

But why do you think it is immoral?

Tim adds: Statement of belief, quite possibly not supportable by strict logic.

Posted by: paul ilc | Aug 24, 2007 6:25:58 PM

What do you think are the appropriate sentences for murder, manslaughter, infanticide, and serious bodily harm, Tim.

Tim adds: Murder? Life sounds about right, with a tariff to be served and then release upon licence. The others? Sorry, but the hangover is too intense for me to remember what the current laws are.

Posted by: bill | Aug 24, 2007 6:54:07 PM

Tim adds: Statement of belief, quite possibly not supportable by strict logic.

That sounds like your inner Pope speaking - the residue of an RC upbringing/education! But seriously, Tim, by taking such an approach, you risk the response that you do not apply the same rigour to your moral thinking as you evidently give to your economic and political thinking.

Tim adds: Entirely happy with that idea. Both of them, in fact. I don't apply as much rigour to moral thinking because I'm reasonably certain that a useful part of morals is gut feeling. Yes, I'm sure it is part of an RC upbringing: not so much what I have gut feelings about, but that I suspect that I, and other humans, have a conscience, and it is this that provides those gut feelings.
I am physically revolted by the deliberate ending of another's life, except in the cases of immediate self defence and Just War. Both capital punishment and abortion. There are no logical arguments that will make me happy about either: none that will convince me that they are moral actions. Superstition? Perhaps, possibly even childhood brain washing. I prefer to think of it (however much I might be in error) as being that small spark of conscience, that little that remains.
Apologies if I've failed some sort of test of rationality: them's my prejudices and I'm sticking to them.

Posted by: paul ilc | Aug 24, 2007 7:04:14 PM

Of course, the main problem with using the deterrent argument to justify the death penalty is that it doesn't really matter who gets executed so long as most citizens maintain a belief that the criminal justice system doesn't convict innocent people.

Sadly, there is overwhelming evidence that innocent people do get convicted and executed for crimes they didn't commit.

Posted by: Bob B | Aug 24, 2007 8:20:00 PM

I, like Tim, am very strongly against capital punishment. Sod it, "judicial murder" is much more accurate.

This argument comes round ever so often in various contexts, and I usually start my argument with: the law makes a point that the more premeditated a murder is, the worse it is. By its very definition, capital punishment is therefore the worst form of murder possible.

Don't give me this "they deserved it" rubbish, I'm sure the murderers in question also thought their victims "deserved" it. Are we really no better than them?

It's utterly barbaric, I simply cannot believe that in our society today there are still people who believe that ceremonially murdering people is somehow good.

*shakes head*

Posted by: Alan | Aug 24, 2007 8:49:07 PM

Bob B:

"the main problem with using the deterrent argument to justify the death penalty is that it doesn't really matter who gets executed so long as most citizens maintain a belief that the criminal justice system doesn't convict innocent people."

I don't think so: in practical (as opposed to theoretical terms), it does matter who is executed - in free societies, like ours: if innocent people are executed, this tends to be exposed in due course.

More generally and theoretically, I think you are confusing act utiltarianism with rule utiltarianism. See (for a crude explanation):


Now, however, technological advances make such miscarriages of justice so extremely unlikely as to be vanishingly small; so we could reintroduce capital punishment, provided the bar were high - eg that, before a sentence of death could be pronounced, there must be (a) DNA evidence, (b) fingerprint/other corroborating forensic evidence and (c) corroborating witness/CCTV evidence.

Capital punishment is not only right in principle on retributive grounds but also justified on utilitarian grounds (because deterrence works).

Posted by: paul ilc | Aug 24, 2007 9:14:59 PM


a) On the contrary, one second's worth of premeditation is not legally different from 20 year's worth. b) You're confusing homicide and murder. Every murder is a homicide; not every homicide is a murder. For example, little old lady stabs mugger with hat pin and he dies. Homicide? Yes. Murder? No, justifiable self defense. Soldier in war plans for and calls in artillery on enemy. Homicide? Yes, justifiably. Murder, no.

The difference is entirely whether the killing is legal and to call a legal killing, which capitala punishment is, "murder" is legal and logical nonsense.

Posted by: Tom Kratman | Aug 24, 2007 10:37:05 PM


the law makes a point that the more premeditated a murder is, the worse it is.

Your premise is false: the law often takes a very lenient view of highly premeditated "mercy killing", while (rightly, in my view) taking a very harsh view of an impulsive street shooting. So your argument that judicial execution is the "worst" - because it is the most premeditated - is refuted.

Don't give me this "they deserved it" rubbish, I'm sure the murderers in question also thought their victims "deserved" it. Are we really no better than them?

'Desert' is part of the concept of criminal justice. As such, it is impartial, being subject to due process and the review of evidence. What murderers think that their victims 'deserve' is arbitrary, not impartial. Therefore, judicial execution is not on a par with judicial execution. QED?

Putting capital punishment aside, do murderers 'deserve' a "life sentence", or are you of the purely rehabilitative 8-years-for-murder-is-too-much school? If the latter, you are beyond hope; if the former, then we might be able to have a rational discussion about the punishment they deserve....

Posted by: paul ilc | Aug 24, 2007 11:04:43 PM

In a related vein (pun slightly intended) can somehow suggest a cogent reason why this man deserves to live:


Please spare us arguments along the line of "divine spark," "soul," and "he's a relatively hairless biped without feathers and with broad flat nails."

Posted by: Tom Kratman | Aug 25, 2007 12:50:48 AM

"The killer - not murderer, please! - of Jessica Lunsford is a human being. Restorative punishment is inappropriate here, as Jessica cannot be returned to her family. Furthermore, retributive punishment would be "barbaric" because the killer is not responsible for his actions, as society is to blame, because...blah, blah. So rehabilitation is the right and only option. With good prison behaviour, out in a maximum of 8 years...."

Posted by: paul ilc | Aug 25, 2007 1:28:46 AM