Why Did Junko Furuta's Murderers Get Such Light Sentences?

By: Dave Roos  | 
Junko Furuta
The rape and murder of Junko Furuta is considered one of the most heinous crimes in Japanese history. Wikipedia/HowStuffWorks

Key Takeaways

  • Junko Furuta, a Japanese high school student, was abducted and subjected to extreme torture and rape by four teenagers over a period of 40 days in 1988.
  • Despite the severity of their crimes the perpetrators received surprisingly lenient sentences due to their minor status and alleged remorse.
  • The case sparked ongoing debate about the adequacy of Japan's juvenile justice system in dealing with violent crimes committed by youths.

Japan and the United States are two of the only industrialized democratic nations in the world that continue to execute criminals. And courts in both countries have even handed down death penalties to criminals who were minors when they committed their crimes. In 2011, for example, three Japanese men were sentenced to death for committing four murders when they were still legally underage.

And yet the four Japanese men convicted of one of the most heinous crimes in recent Japanese memory — the brutal murder of 17-year-old Junko Furuta in 1988 — were handed relatively light prison sentences and set free to offend again.


Why didn't Junko Furuta and her family receive justice? And what changes have been made to Japanese juvenile law to ensure that violent criminals of any age are held accountable?


Junko Furuta's Murder: An Unspeakable Crime

Warning: the following contains descriptions of violence and sexual assault that may be disturbing to some readers.

To describe what happened to Junko Furuta feels like a repeat violation of this young innocent girl, but some facts must be established to understand the truly abhorrent nature of the crime.


Junko Furuta was a popular high school student, considered a "good girl" who got high grades and didn't drink or do drugs. Riding her bike home from a part-time job Nov. 25, 1988, she was attacked by a random boy (Shinji Minato) who threw her off her bike and ran away. Another boy (Hiroshi Miyano) approached, claiming to have seen the whole thing and offered to walk her home for safety. The whole thing was a setup between the two boys. Minato kicked Furuta off her bike, and Miyano abducted and raped the young girl in a warehouse. He then called three of his friends, including Minato, to brag about the rape. The boys were serial sexual predators. They usually let their victims go, but Furuta's suffering had only begun.

For between 40 and 44 days, Furuta was held captive by Miyano, who was a low-ranking member of the yakuza or Japanese mafia. He and his lowlife friends tortured, raped and brutalized Furuta on a daily basis. Her skin was burned with hot wax; she was suspended from the ceiling and beaten like a punching bag with golf clubs, iron rods and bamboo sticks. She was forced to eat live cockroaches and drink her own urine and subjected to other despicable acts. She suffered convulsions and seizures from untreated infections and malnutrition.

Amazingly, all this took place in the home of one the boys, Shinji Minato, who lived there with his parents. Minato's parents claimed that they did not intervene because they were afraid of their son's violent behavior and his yakuza connections. It got so bad that at one point, Furuta asked her captors to kill her.

When Furuta eventually succumbed to her injuries, her cruel captors tried to destroy the evidence of her murder by burning her remains, placing them in an oil drum and covering it all with concrete.

When the police arrested two of Miyano's conspirators in January 1989 for the rape of another young victim, the teenage boys accidentally mentioned Furuta, thinking that was whom the police were referring to. After authorities discovered Junko Furuta's body, Miyano and three other young men confessed to the shocking crime. Now it was up to the courts to decide their fate.


The System Protected Juvenile Offenders, But Not Victims

When the trial of the four high school boys began on July 31, 1989, Miyano and his accomplices were referred to in official court documents simply as "A," "B," "C," and "D."

"The identities of juvenile offenders in 1989 were not officially disclosed," explains Setsuo Miyazawa, a law professor in both Japan and the U.S., in an email. Furuta's identity as a minor victim was also supposed to be protected — she was referred to as "E" — but her real name and photo were leaked and splashed across every Japanese newspaper and TV program.


The only reason we know the names of Miyano and his conspirators today is because a Japanese magazine called Shukan Bunshun decided to break protocol and name the perpetrators in April 1990. "To make a long story short, we decided that beasts don't have human rights," said the magazine's editor-in-chief Kazuyoshi Hanada.

The names of the four young men (and their ages at the time) were:

  • Hiroshi Miyano (18)
  • Shinji Minato (16)
  • Jo Ogura (17)
  • Yasushi Watanabe (17)

Back then, anyone under 20 was considered a minor in Japan. In 2022, the legal age of adulthood in Japan was changed from 20 to 18, which meant that not only could 18-year-olds now enter into legal contracts, like buying a house; they could also be tried as adults, subject to longer prison sentences. Under current law, media outlets can now publish the names and photos of offenders who are 18 or older after they've been indicted for a crime. Those under 18 still remain anonymous.


Lenient Sentences and Public Outcry

In a frustrating prosecutorial decision, the four boys weren't charged with a deliberate act of murder, but only with "causing bodily injury resulting in death."

Only Miyano, the ringleader, was handed the maximum sentence for the lesser charge, which was 20 years in prison. The others received between five and nine years each.


The Japanese public was outraged that the death penalty wasn't considered for such a heinous crime. In 1983, the Japanese Supreme Court had established what's known as the "Nagayama test" for the death penalty. When Norio Nagayama was 19, he stole a pistol from a U.S. naval base and murdered four people.

When a lower court refused to consider capital punishment in the case of Nagayama, the Supreme Court ordered a retrial, saying that the death penalty can be considered for minors in cases where the crime was "atrocious and callous."

What crime could be more "atrocious and callous" than what those four young men did to Junko Furuta? Yet each of them walked free after relatively short prison terms.

While it is not clear why their sentences were so short, the most likely answer was that they were tried as juveniles rather than adults, based on the Japanese legal system at the time. Perhaps the courts thought they could be rehabilitated as they were so young as opposed to being locked up for decades or sentenced to death. The Japan Times noted in 2022 that before the amendment to juvenile law, "Decisions on sentence length were usually made by officers at correctional facilities on a case-by-case basis. With the amendment [which no longer treats 18- and 19-year-olds as minors], the terms of incarceration are specific and the period of incarceration or probation will be determined by the court."

The list of criminal offenses was also broadened. In the past, a juvenile could only face criminal prosecution for murder or other "acts that resulted in death." Now they can face criminal charges for robbery, rape, arson and other serious offenses.

Angered by these light sentences, Furuta's family filed and won a lawsuit against Minato's parents (in whose home the crimes had occurred) and were awarded 50 million yen (around $425,000), which Minato's family paid by selling their home.


Furuta's Killers Strike Again

One of the saddest outcomes of the Junko Furuta trial is that three of her four murderers went on to commit more crimes and hurt more people after their release from prison.

Miyano, who continued to be involved with the yakuza, was arrested for fraud. Ogura was convicted of attempted murder in 2004 and served another seven years in prison. In 2018, Minato was arrested for attempted murder when he attacked a man with a baton and tried to slash his throat.


If the goal of the Japanese juvenile justice system was to reform delinquent offenders, not punish them, its efforts in the Junko Furuta case were an abject failure. The Japanese news magazine Shukan Shincho called the later arrests of three of Furuta's murderers a "defeat of the juvenile law."

The injustice of Junko's case didn't lead to immediate reforms of the Japanese juvenile justice system, but that changed in 1997 after a string of tragic child murders in Kobe, Japan. In that case, a 14-year-old boy was convicted of killing two elementary school children and seriously injuring three others.

The media reported extensively on the child murders, and the Japanese public demanded real justice for the victims. As a result, Japan's juvenile law was changed in 2000. The age at which a juvenile could be charged with a crime was lowered from 16 to 14.


Frequently Asked Questions

What was the larger impact on Japan's juvenile justice system after the Furuta case?
The Furuta case prompted calls for reforms to treat juvenile offenders involved in heinous crimes as adults in Japan.
How has public perception of juvenile crime in Japan changed since the Furuta case?
The case led to increased public advocacy for stricter punishments and more transparency in juvenile crime proceedings.