Japan’s Death Penalty and Bushido

Will Sarvis
5 min readMay 16, 2022

In contemporary Japan there is no set execution date for death row inmates. The prisoner must expect to die on any given day, at any given moment. Years may go by, or it could be tomorrow. When I learned this, immediately I thought of Bushido (武士道) the historic code of the Samurai, as explicated by Tsunetomo Yamamoto (1659–1719) in the Hagakure. Particularly, there was a passage that came to mind: “you must die anew, every morning and every night. If you continually preserve the state of death in everyday life, you will understand the essence of Bushido, and you will gain freedom in Bushido.”

By the time Yamamoto wrote the Hagakure, he had retired from Samurai life to become a Zen monk. This was a seamless transition; Zen Buddhism and Samurai culture were practically synonymous. As Kaiten Nukariya wrote, the Samurai and Zen monk both shared an integrity called “honest poverty,” in which they avoided dishonorable income. The ideal Samurai and Zen monk also behaved with courage and dignity. Perhaps most important of all, both had a profound appreciation for the transitory nature of human life. This, in fact, may be the central tenet of Zen Buddhism.

Zen Buddhism was derived from the Chan (禪) school of Buddhism in China, where Daoism had heavily influenced it. In China, the original teachings from India had branched off into many schools. The Zen school favored practice over study, and the Samurai took to Zen Buddhism like no other group of people before or after. One of the most profound aspects of their beliefs was absolute confidence in a spiritual life to follow our time on earth . . . and a preference for going there.

As Yamamoto wrote, “I have found the essence of Bushido: to die! In other words, when you have a choice between life and death, then always choose death: this is all that you must remember.” Wow. I recall reading that as a teenager and thinking, these guys meant business! No hypocrisy here about belief in a better afterlife coupled with a fear of going there. In fact, Yamamoto advocated “experiencing death in advance” every day. He wrote, “The realization of certain death ought to be renewed every morning. Every morning you must prepare yourself for every kind of death.”

Seen in this light, the death penalty culture in contemporary Japan suddenly seems far less alien than some of its western critics (listed below) have maintained.

The great Japanese writer Eiji Yoshikawa captured much of this historic culture in his masterpiece, Musashi, one of the greatest novels ever written about one of the greatest Samurai warriors who ever lived. Repeatedly, Yoshikawa expresses what Yamamoto wrote about daily preparation for death. But this is no idolization of death. Far from it. If you remember the Buddhist monks who self-immolated during the Vietnam War, then you might also remember that only the senior monks did this. The novices had not yet “earned” their right to ritualistic death.

As the Zen monk Takuan in Musashi observes, “Honest people value life passionately, they hang on to it like a precious jewel. And they pick the right time and place to surrender it, to die with dignity.” Dying with courage and dignity is key. Musashi himself reflects how, “There are people who die by remaining alive and others who gain life by dying.” So this is hardly a culture that idolizes death; instead, you could argue that it is a culture that prizes spiritual evolution that ends with courageous resolve in the face of death.

Yoshitaki Tsunejiro’s 1855 painting capturing Miyamoto Musashi employing his famous two-sword technique (Library of Congress image).

So the Samurai were a reflection of Zen culture as much as they were progenitors of it. As Nukariya observed, Bushido was not confined to warriors, but should be embraced “by every citizen in the struggle for existence.” To be a civilized person and a Samurai-in-spirit, such a regular citizen must be “brave, generous, upright, faithful . . . at the same time full of the spirit of self-sacrifice.”

I am not arguing for a sort of historic cultural determinism when it comes to linking Bushido with the contemporary death penalty in Japan. But culture counts, immensely. The Kamakaze pilots of World War II seem just as much a product of these ancient Samurai-Zen traditions, as was the high incidence of Karoshi (過労死, death from overwork) among the post-war generations. And yet, such obvious cultural expressions are missing from the multiple English language explorations of Japanese death penalty culture (sources below).

All the English language writers I found were advocating against contemporary capital punishment in Japan. Any historical references tended to be highly superficial or even irrelevant. Not a single one mentioned the Samurai, Bushido, or even the specifics of the Zen school of Buddhism. One writer offered a general description of Buddhism in a cherry-picked advocacy of compassion, but the missing specifics of the Zen school (as sketched above) not only make for bad history and poor cultural understanding, but also weakens the advocate’s argument.

At this point you may have concluded that I am romanticizing or idealizing the Japanese approach to death. I hope not. But I do respect it tremendously, and I try to understand it from the Japanese point of view, even though I will always be a permanent outsider to this magnificent culture.

I’m also not necessarily disagreeing with Japanese death penalty opponents. As mentioned in my previous essay, I am generally against the death penalty in America, and the United States regularly executes more people per capita than does Japan. But I am trying to appreciate the Japanese culture. I would also strongly argue that anyone seriously opposing the death penalty in Japan would do well to begin with a profound exploration of the cultural context. Then, maybe they will become effective proponents of ideas like the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights against the death penalty. But if an American advocated such a policy, you couldn’t blame the Japanese if they responded, “You first.”

Copyright © 2022 Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.

ENGLISH LANGUAGE ANTI-DEATH PENALTY ARTICLES

Joachim Herrmann, “The Death Penalty in Japan: an ‘Absurd’ Punishment,” Brooklyn Law Review 67 (Spring 2002).

Billy Holmes, “Secretive Symbolism? the Death Penalty, Executions, and Japan,” Criminal Law Forum 31 (2020), 579–601.

Damien P. Horigan, “Of Compassion and Capital Punishment: a Buddhist Perspective on Death,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 41 (1996).

David T. Johnson, The Culture of Capital Punishment in Japan (Cham, Switzerland: Springer; imprint, Palgrave Pivot, 2020).

Koichi Kikuta, “Capital Punishment In Japan and The International Code,” Meiji Law Journal 7 (March 25, 2000), 1–24.

Charles Lane, “A View to a Kill,” Foreign Policy 148 (May-June 2005), 37–42.

John M. Peek, “Buddhism, Human Rights and the Japanese State,” Human Rights Quarterly 17:3 (Aug. 1995), 527–540.

OTHER REFERENCES

Kaiten Nukariya, The Religion of the Samurai: A Study of Zen Philosophy and Discipline in China and Japan (London, Luzac & Co., 1913), quotes and references from pages 35, 36, 50.

Tsunetomo Yamamoto (1659–1719), Bushido: Way of the Samurai, translated from the classic Hagakure by Minoru Tanaka; Justin F. Stone, ed. (Albuquerque: Sun Pub. Co., 1975), quotes from pp. 22–23, 80.

Eiji Yoshikawa, Musashi, Charles S. Terry, trans. (NY: Harper & Row, 1981), quotes and references from pages 81, 168, 508, 509, 523, 748.

--

--

Will Sarvis

Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.