There are over 70,000 inmates in Japan's 74 government-run prisons. Some jail have no walls or armed guards, just bamboo fences. Other are like prison in the United States.
Japanese prisons have few problems with homosexual rape, escapes, weapons or drugs. Riots are prevented because there is a large number of guards. At Fuchu Prison in western Tokyo, a high-security facility for serious offenders, there are 500 guards for 2,300 inmates.
Among the 2,300 inmates at Fuchu are about 500 non-Japanese from 39 countries, They generally get better treatment than the Japanese prisoners: private cells with televisions and have access to foreign newspapers and books. Muslims and other groups have "special food" privileges.
Overcrowding has became a problem in recent years as a result of a higher crime rate and longer sentences. Japanese prisons built for 64,300 inmates now are filled to 108 percent of capacity. Cells designed to hold six now hold seven prisoners or more. Storage and conference rooms have been converted into cells.
Even though new prisons and facilities have been built they have not been able to keep up with increased number of prisoners. Community service is being eyed as an alternative to prison time to reduce overcrowding o prison.
Prison Life in Japan
Typically, a group of six inmates share a cell and sleeps together on tatami mat floor. This group usually eats, bathes and works together. At Fuchu prisoners rise at 6:45am. After breakfast and roll call they work for eight hours with a 40 minute lunch break and 15 minute morning and afternoon breaks. The bathe three times a week in the summer and twice a week in the winter. They are allowed to watch television for two hours every night. A few year ago they could only watch television for two hours every other night.
Japanese prisons tend to be very clean and free of the violence that is widespread in American prisons. Small, single cells for older prisoners have a tatami mat floor, futon, a television, a toilet, a sink and a large suitcase for personal possessions.
Japanese inmates were vertically-striped grayish pajamas. A survey of ex-inmates found that they didn’t like their pajamas, felt their cells were too small and wanted better meals.
Forty-seven percent of all prisoners live in solitary confinement. The high number is attributed to prisoners being punished for assault and general disciplinary problems.
Harsh Treatments in Prisons in Japan
Human right groups have detailed cruel and degrading treatments at Japanese prisons. According to a 1999 Amnesty International Report, "Prison rules often prevent prisoners form making eye contact with each other or talking to each other outside designated times. Prisoners may be forced to adopt a certain posture while sitting in their cells or to walking a certain fashion when outside the their cells...Minor infractions of prison rules continue to be punished with severe sanctions. For example, some prisoners were forced to kneel or sit in the same position in single cells every day for up to two months, with no form of exercise, mental stimulation or contact with other prisoners."
One inmate told the New York Times that "prisoners worked and ate in silence, forbidden from looking to the right of left...They were forced to sleep in a prescribed position on their backs and crying was a punishment."
Amnesty International described one inmate who was painfully strapped into a leather body belt and metal handcuffs in a "protection cell" because he spoke rudely to a guard. The use of leather body belts has declined but the use of a "protection cells" continues.
Kevin Mara, an American imprisoned from smuggling marijuana into Japan, said he was sent to solitary confinement and was stripped, cuffed and beaten with a leather belt for apparently breaking the rule of looking up while he was eating. He said he was also forced eat from a bowl on the ground while handcuffed.
Another American arrested for drugs said he spent six days in a small cell where he was forced to sit erect and stare at a blank white wall as a punishment for sending a letter to his family. He said he saw other prisoners trussed and beaten. Other Americans arrested for drugs in Japan have told similar stories.
Work at Prisons in Japan
Prisoners have to work. They typically work in small factories, forced to make goods such as department store shopping bags, pinball machines, plastic clothes pins, plastic water guns, Godzilla dolls, plastic baseball hats, golf clubs and children's plastic ski poles at wages of about 50 cents a day.
Many of the products are affixed American flag stickers and "Made in Japan" decals. Some of the products have been made for Burberry's, the Britain-based clothier, two leading Japanese department stores, Mitsukoshi and Daimaru, and the Japanese sporting good manufacturer Mizuno. Fuchu prison even has its own brand---Capic---for shoes, belts and bags.
Describing inmates at a factory in Fuchu orison, Tim Large wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, "They work without talking, cutting out shoe patterns, stitching together leather bags and wallets. Each inmate keeps his head down. Eye contact is not an option."
There are 36 small retail outlets that sell solely items made in prisons. Popular items include penguin dolls made at Kofu prison, goku-maru shoulder bags from Hakodate Juvenile Prison, Blue Stick soap made ay Yokosila Prison in Kanagawa Prefecture and soy sauce and miso produced at Ichihara Prison for Traffic Offenders in Chiba Prefecture. The items are made by prisoners so they can learn skills they can use on the outside like woodworking, printing, dressmaking, and leather working.
Hard economic times in Japan and inefficiency of the prison work system has prompted outside contractors to cancel or scale-down prison-based projects.
Aging Prisoners in Japan
Japanese prisoners are aging along with the general population. New jails being built to accommodate them that have wheelchair ramps, grab-bar toilets and baths, and more healthy meals. The number of prisoners over 60 rose from 17,942, 19.3 percent of the that prison population in 2000 to 46,637, 59.3 percent o the prison population, in 2006
Onomichi Prison has a special ward for older prisoners. Adjustments made for the older prisoners include relaxing requirements that they march in formation, providing low-sodium dishes at meal time, and cutting New Year’s rice cakes into small pieces so they don’t choke. No figures have been released on the cost of taking care of these prisoners but health care alone is thought to be a major burden.
Studies have found that after being released older prisoners are mor likely to end up back in prison, presumably because they have nowhere else to go. Most of those sent back are sent back for committing nonviolent crimes sch as shoplifting or petty theft. When they leave prison they often can not find work and without work or a guarnteer they cannot rent an apartment.
The director at Ominichi Prison told the New York Times, “There are some elderly who are afraid of going back into society. If they stay in prison, everything is taken care of. There are examples of elderly who’ve left prison, used what money they had, were arrested after shoplifting at a convenience store. They’d made up their minds to go back to prison.”
One 71-year-old inmate imprisoned for mugging a woman to pay for gambling habit told the New York Times, he found prison life to be “much better than expected.” He said, “it sounds strange, but we’re all old folks here. I’m old, too, and we’re all pretty quiet.” Many of the prisoner save been disowned by their families and receive few visitors.
Elderly Inmates Headache for Japan’s Prisons
Makoto Inagaki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “In a room called "the care factory" in Fuchu Prison in western Tokyo, eight elderly inmates sat at low tables making small paper bags...The Japanese-style room with a space of about 24 tatami mats is equipped with a small kitchen and beds. The eight shaven-headed inmates eat and sleep there together. "It's a last resort," a prison officer said. "But elderly people move slowly and can't keep up with group activities." [Source: Makoto Inagaki, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 24, 2012]
According to the Justice Ministry, the total number of inmates as of the end of 2011 was 61,102, down nearly 10,000 from the peak at the end of 2006. Although this was in line with the decrease in criminal offenses, the number of inmates aged 70 or older continues to rise and reached 2,524 at the end of last year--2.9 times the figure at the end of 2001. [Ibid]
Japan's prisons hold 765 "resting patients" who cannot do prison work due to illness. Thirty-seven percent of them were aged 65 or older last year. In Fuchu Prison, 172 inmates are 70 or older. Almost all have had stints behind bars before. The prison has six resting patients and two need daily care. "More elderly inmates need special care, and there's not enough space at the care factory for them," a 31-year-old prison officer said. [Ibid]
The growing care requirements of inmates also place a greater burden on prison officers. Some prisons have hired physical therapists to help keep inmates stay physically active. Hiroshima Prison hires a physical therapist as a part-time employee. Once a week, the therapist helps six inmates go for walks and do other exercise to prevent them from becoming bedridden. Kobe Prison also asks an occupational therapist to instruct inmates on doing exercise. Attempts to prevent recidivism have had a limited effect. Some experts have suggested that elderly inmates who repeatedly commit minor offenses should be rehabilitated at welfare facilities. [Ibid]
Ryukoku University Prof. Koichi Hamai, an expert on inmate treatment issues, said, "Among developed nations, only Japan has such a high proportion of elderly inmates." Italy--another aging society--provides an interesting comparison. According to Hamai, Italian courts consider which treatment is necessary to rehabilitate elderly offenders even if they are given prison sentences. In many cases, offenders aged 70 or older are allowed to remake their lives at home or at welfare facilities. [Ibid]
Hamai said many elderly people repeat minor offenses when they are isolated from society or entangled in financial difficulties. "If they are imprisoned, it'll become more difficult for them to live independently because they've been cut off from society," he said. "We should create a system that links to welfare services from the police investigation stage.” [Ibid]
Hiroshima Prison Escapee Caught After Three Days on Run
In January 2012, Yoree Koh wrote in the Wall Street Journal: Hiroshima prefectural police said a massive manhunt for an escaped prisoner came to an end when Li Guolin was recaptured in a neighborhood about two kilometers from the prison from which he staged his rare escape fully three days ago. Mr. Li’s arrest closes the chapter on what justice ministry officials said was Japan’s first prison break in over 20 years, one that left the southern city on edge, captivated the country’s attention and raised doubts about the soundness of the prison security system. Mr. Li, a Chinese national, was imprisoned in the southern city for shooting a police officer in 2005. [Source: By Yoree Koh, Wall Street Journal, January 13, 2012]
In what had been a frustrating search short on leads local police finally caught a break earlier when authorities received a key eyewitness report. The location was close to another place where Mr. Li had unwittingly left a clue: DNA matching the fugitive’s was found on a can of beer inside a house where a burglary was reported the previous day, according to local media reports. Some of the home owner’s clothes were also stolen. Mr. Li was thinly dressed at the time of his escape---breaking out wearing just his prison-issued white underwear. A trail of other hints quickly followed---a broken car window and signs someone had attempted to break into a safe inside an office, according to state broadcaster NHK. The police then relocated some 500 officers to search the vicinity. [Ibid]
One issue that dogged the search early on was that Mr. Li had a 30-minute head start before prison authorities realized he was missing. The 5-foot 8-inch, 144-pound man ducked out of the prison yard where inmates were exercising. Supervising guards only discovered his absence when they conducted roll call at the end of the exercise period. About 40 minutes later, a local resident reported seeing a man in white clothes stretched out on the ground outside the prison before jolting upright and taking off toward the east. [Ibid]
Prison authorities now suspect Mr. Li scaled an 8.5-ft interior wall on the perimeter of the athletic field, headed east and climbed a second barrier about twice as high as the first, which was under repair. Using the construction scaffolding as a foothold, they believe he was able to hoist himself out of the prison. The security camera propped on top of the wall had been removed because of the repair work. The alarm system was turned off and a separate alarm nearby failed to sound. [Ibid]
Japan’s Volunteer Probation System
Probation, or hogo kansatsu, which literally means "protective observation," is a system meant to give guidance with the aim of rehabilitation to adults given suspended sentences or to juvenile delinquents. Volunteer probation officers from the public and others periodically interview them and evaluate their behavior in daily life and give instructions if necessary. [Source: Takaaki Kato and Daisuke Katsui, Yomiuri Shimbun, November 25, 2012]
The system aims to rehabilitate adults and juvenile offenders while they continue to live in society. The probation office obliges those put on probation to report information such as their address and asks them to observe conditions decided according to the crimes or juvenile offenses committed. Those put on probation are often required to comply with "special conditions.” [Ibid]
The Penal Code stipulates that the court can revoke suspension of a sentence if there is malicious behavior violating special compliance conditions. The probation office first asks the prosecutors' office to revoke the suspension of a sentence. The prosecutors' office then files a request with the court.
Probation officers assist people who have been released from prison and other criminal record holders in their efforts to return to society. Although the officers are legally part-time national public servants certified by the justice minister, they receive no salary and are effectively private-sector volunteers. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, September 17, 2012]
Probation officers interview people released from prison on bail, young people released from juvenile facilities and people with suspended prison terms that are on probation. The officers meet with them about twice a month to help them rehabilitate. In recent years, recidivism rates have been on the rise, as have the number of suspended prison terms handed down on condition of being put on probation since the introduction of the lay judge system. To prevent released prisoners from committing crimes again, the Justice Ministry has found itself increasingly reliant on the volunteer probation officer system. [Ibid]
As of May 2012, 47,968 people were registered as volunteer probation officers, but the number has been on the decline. The shortage is especially severe in urban areas. Facing a shortage of volunteer probation officers, the Justice Ministry has set up recruiting stations staffed with experienced officers in key cities nationwide to find people capable of taking on the work. [Ibid]
Masaaki Hasumi, 70, who heads a volunteer probation officers' association in Saitama, said he solicited three acquaintances of his to serve as probation officers this year, but all three immediately refused. "My only choice is to demonstrate the rewarding feeling that comes with being a probation officer. Still, it's difficult to recruit new officers under the current situation," he said. As result of a survey that uncovered a number of situations like this the ministry decided conventional means of securing human resources for the job, such as relying on personal connections, was not sufficient. To improve the situation, the ministry decided to set up a system in which experienced probation officers will be designated as recruiters. [Ibid]
Japan had 48,664 volunteer probation officers as of early 2011. Their average age is 63.6. About 27 percent of them are housewives or jobless and 23 percent are company employees or public servants. The term of service is two years. Participants can be reappointed.
Juvenile Laws in Japan
The legal age for a juvenile is 20. Until recently children under 14 could not be arrested according to the Japanese penal code. For juvenile criminals under 18, no matter how horrendous the crime they committed, they were set free as adults when they were 20 and their identity was kept hidden (See Kobe Killer, Famous Crimes).
Some 18- and 19-year-old minors, however, have been executed. In April 2008 a death sentence as given to a man who committed a rape and double murder when he was a minor. The man raped and killed a woman and strangled the woman’s baby daughter. In Japan there have been nine other cases of minors being sentenced to death. All were sentenced for murder; seven were 19; two were 18. Three murdered four people each; one murdered three, one murdered two; a and three murdered one person. One of the latter killed a policeman, took his gun and injured 16 others.
In April 2001, a revised Juvenile Law went into effect. It stated that teenagers 14 and older could be tried and penalized under adult criminal law and given more severe punishments. New rules were passed in 1997 allowed youth with "uncorrected criminal tendencies" to be held until 23 and those with mental disturbances until 26.
The revised Juvenile Law stipulates that when a person aged 16 or older intentionally causes the death of someone he or she can be tried as an adult. Change to the law in 2007 lowered the age to 14 in which minors can be sent to reformatories.
A 19-year-old was sentenced to death for murdering for members of a family in Chiba Prefecture in 1992 in a robbery in which he stole about $3,000 and various items. See People Sentenced to Death Above.
In January 2007, a court ruled that a boy who killed his mother when he was 16 would be sent to a juvenile facility for four years rather than jail. Prosecutor had sought prison time.
Punishments for Juvenile Crimes in Japan
Crimes involving juveniles have traditionally been tried in family courts under a single judge not in criminal or juvenile courts. The punishment are usually not very severe. In the worst cases the children are put on a kind of probation or sent to reform school or youth rehabilitation facility. Juveniles convicted of violent crimes are detained on average for only 1.2 years.
Inmates at Japan's 57 juvenile detention centers get up at 7:00am every morning. scrub their spartan dormitories, sing in a chorus and then do exercises led by a drill master. In the afternoon there is counseling, vocational training and little private time.
The detention centers generally don't have fences and are easy to escape from. When young people do escape they are punished after they are caught with things like cleaning the dormitory floors and jumping rope to the point of exhaustion
Female police have been assigned to write “love letters” to delinquent boys and girls to encourage them to open up and spill out their feelings.
There is a problem with what to do with around 2,500 juvenile delinquents , about 10 percent of those released from juvenile reformatories, who have been released but are not wanted by their families.
Image Sources: Visualizing Culture, MIT Education, YouTube
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated January 2013