Death row miscarriage case puts spotlight on Japanese justice

A Japanese man freed after 48 years on death row lives in fear he will be sent back

Japanese former professional boxer Iwao Hakamada, who was sentenced to death for the murder of four members of a family in 1966. Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

Iwao Hakamada (82) spends a lot of time in the neat apartment he shares with his sister gazing out the window. After 48 years in jail, most of it in solitary confinement waiting for the hangman, he lives mostly in his own head. He gives no clue that he has entered the history books as the world's longest-serving death row prisoner. Or that he is still under a death sentence.

Hakamada was arrested in 1966 on suspicion of murdering a family of four. After decades of appeals, a district court in Shizuoka Prefecture freed him, saying in 2014 that police evidence against him was probably fabricated. The prosecution disagrees, so he awaits retrial and the possibility he will be returned to his 5sq m cell.

Last year the Tokyo high court overturned the Shizuoka decision to grant a retrial, bouncing Japan’s highest-profile legal miscarriage back to the supreme court. Prosecutors have written to the court demanding that it reject Hakamada’s appeal.

His sister, Hideko, fears that he will have to serve out his original sentence, despite his age and fragile mental health. “It’s really unforgivable,” she says.


Hideko, still a steely presence at 85, has fought for her brother's innocence for more than half her life. Last month she helped launch a manga (comic) series about his life. The title, Split Decision, nods to Hakamada's old life as a professional boxer and to his original conviction by three judges, one of whom, racked with guilt, later said the conviction was flawed.

Hakamada was questioned for three weeks without a lawyer, says Amnesty International says. He later retracted his confession, claiming the police had beaten and threatened him unless he admitted stabbing to death his boss, his boss's wife and their two teenage children. Yet Shizuoka district court sentenced him to death in September 1968. The sentence was confirmed in 1980.

Hideko Hakamada, sister of Iwao. Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

Thuggish appearance

The arrest of Carlos Ghosn, Nissan's former chairman who has been held in a detention cell for three months, suggests little has changed since. Police and prosecutors have enormous discretionary powers over criminal suspects, who are nearly always convicted once indicted. Bias can affect police procedure: Hakamada was poor and his boxer's face and lack of formal education made him appear thuggish.

Japan puts far fewer people in prison than most developed countries: 41 per 100,000 people, compared with 80 in Ireland, 139 in the United Kingdom and 655 in the United States. But the entire system would collapse without confessions, said David Johnson, a judicial expert on Japan at the University of Hawaii. Confessions underpin 89 per cent of criminal cases.

"The police believe that expression of remorse is a key part of the system," says Kana Sasakura, a professor of law at Konan University. Nobody knows how many innocent people are in Japanese prisons, but many of the more than 100 people on death row are challenging their convictions.

The heavy use of confessions made under duress has been widely condemned by lawyers and campaigners inside Japan, which is the only G7 developed country apart from the US that executes its citizens. The ministry of justice says the death penalty is popular with the public. In practice, the gallows are usually reserved for multiple murderers.

Opposed to debate

Hanging has survived the tenure of conscience-stricken justice ministers, such as the devoutly Buddhist Seiken Sugiura, who declined to sign execution orders throughout 2006. Judicial officials always reimpose the status quo, says Yoshihiro Yasuda, a lawyer who opposes the death penalty. "The prosecution and judges have not accepted they did anything wrong [in the Hakamada case]," he says. They are "absolutely opposed to starting a debate on the death penalty."

In prison Hakamada initially kept up the training regime that carried him through 29 professional featherweight bouts. Fellow inmates used to watch him shadow-box and punch the walls of his cell until his knuckles turned bloody. He gradually became uncommunicative, at one point refusing all visits from his closest relatives, including his sister, for well over a decade.

Now, he just wants to be left alone to live out his remaining time, says his sister. “He has finally found some peace here.”