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Japanese woman Chisako Kakehi, who has been dubbed Japan’s ‘Black Widow’ for poisoning her husband and lovers with cyanide. Photo: AFP

‘Black Widow’ case shows Japan’s support for death penalty is alive and kicking

  • Chisako Kakehi, who killed at least two lovers and a husband with cyanide to get their money, has lost an appeal against her death sentence – and that seems to suit most of Japan’s social media users just fine
  • Despite criticism from rights groups and foreign governments, polls suggest 80 per cent of Japanese support capital punishment
Japan’s Supreme Court has confirmed the death sentence for a 74-year-old woman found guilty of killing two lovers and a husband for their money, with Chisako Kakehi joining just over 100 other people on death row.

No date has been set for Kakehi’s execution and she will only be informed that her sentence is being carried out on the morning of her execution.

Only 54 countries retain the death penalty, although no executions were carried out in Japan in 2020 or so far in 2021. While the issue of sentencing criminals to death is controversial elsewhere, it is broadly accepted in Japan. Kakehi’s case is no exception, with a majority of the nation’s social media users apparently supportive of the court’s decision.

Such is the demand that Kakehi be hanged that some posters claiming to be opposed to the death penalty have even expressed their support for the ruling. The case has attracted widespread media and public attention, leading to Kakehi being dubbed the “black widow”.

The court on Tuesday rejected an appeal by lawyers representing Kakehi against the death sentence passed by two lower courts, most recently in 2017, for killing her husband and two common-law partners with poison in 2012 and 2013.

She was also suspected of attempting to kill a fourth partner, while prosecutors declined to investigate the deaths of three previous husbands that were not at the time considered suspicious.

Announcing the unanimous ruling by the court’s five justices, presiding justice Yuko Miyazaki said the crime was “premeditated and cruel”, adding that the death penalty was “inevitable” despite Kakehi’s old age.

“Her motivation for financial gain leaves no room for leniency,” the judge concluded.

Members of the public queue to watch the trial of Chisako Kakehi, dubbed the ‘Black Widow’, at the Kyoto district court in Japan in 2017. Photo: AFP

According to the court, Kakehi murdered her husband, 75-year-old Isao Kakehi, as well as Masanori Honda, 71, and Minori Hioki, 75, by giving them drinks laced with cyanide between 2007 and 2013.

The fourth man, Toshiaki Suehiro, survived after drinking the poison because he only drank a small amount, although he subsequently died of cancer.

The court found that Kakehi borrowed money from the men while they were still alive, took out life insurance policies and also arranged to inherit their estates after their deaths.

In all, she is estimated to have raked in US$9 million, although the lower courts heard that she lost virtually all of the money through bad stock trading decisions.

Kakehi was only caught when police concluded that the deaths of so many partners could not be a coincidence and ordered an autopsy. She was arrested after cyanide was detected in the man’s blood.

Kakehi did little to dispel the accusations against her during her four-month trial in 2017, with local media quoting her as saying in court, “I have no intention of hiding the guilt. I will laugh it off and die if I am sentenced to death tomorrow.”

She changed her tune before the Supreme Court, however, with her lawyers claiming that she was suffering from dementia and did not want to die.

The Kyoto district court sentences Chisako Kakehi, a serial killer dubbed Japan’s ‘Black widow’, to death in 2017. Photo: Kyodo

There has been little sympathy on social media.

“She has no right to say ‘I don’t want to die’ after killing so many people,” said one message on Twitter, while another added, “The death penalty ruling is not strange. Respect the court’s decision.”

On the Japan Today website, one post read, “It is imperative that she hang before old age takes her. She must be made an example, lest generations of Japanese women see her as a role model.”

Another stated, “She’s getting old, it would be a terrible shame were she to die in prison instead of being hanged. Hurry it up.” One more post read, “Put those gallows to work.”

However, there was some resistance from opponents of the death penalty. One posted: “State-sanctioned murder like this in a so-called developed nation is just barbaric and bizarre yet it is seemingly fully supported by the public.”

The case seems to have turned some away from clemency, however, with one post reading, “Personally I don’t support the death penalty. However, in a country that does have the death penalty, these are the sort of crimes that it should be used for.”

Getting away with murder: Is Japan’s low autopsy rate hiding killers?

Makoto Watanabe, a professor of communications at Hokkaido Bunkyo University, said the ruling was unlikely to have an impact on broad support for the death penalty in Japan. Polls indicate about 80 per cent of the public back capital punishment, despite pressure from other governments to abolish the practice and strong criticism from human rights groups such as Amnesty International.

“The death penalty, like a lot of other social issues, is rarely debated in Japan because ordinary people think that it is not something that will ever impact them directly,” he said. “Most people see it as someone else’s business and not something they need to have a say on.

“This case will not change that and I think the messages on social media just underline that,” he said.

“People tend to be more outspoken on social media but everything that I have seen would indicate that ordinary members of the public are tougher on criminals than courts have tended to be,” he said, adding that since the introduction in 2009 of “lay judges” – panels of members of the pubic who act as a jury – punishments had become more severe.

“People tend to be tough on criminals, they think the death penalty is appropriate in cases such as this and I think that younger people are even tougher on the punishments they want for crime.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Death sentence upheld for ‘black widow’ who poisoned husband and two lovers