What Is Prison Like In Japan?

In one of my previous jobs, I had the somewhat unenviable task of visiting a number of Japanese prisons; I wasn’t an inmate, and the best part of my job was that I got to walk out the front door the same day. Trust me; while there are worse places to be in prison, you still don’t want to get locked up in Japan.

The good news is that Japanese prisons have almost no prisoner-on-prisoner violence, no revenge killings, no shower rapes. The bad news is the techniques prison officials utilize to realize that.

Japanese Prison’s Boot Camp

The prisons impose a strict, military-like discipline in order to maintain the security, order, and safety of the institution and its inmates. The prisoners wear uniforms, and there is a prescribed way to walk, talk, eat, sit, and sleep (always on one’s back, with face and hands exposed; if you roll on your side, the guards will wake you up.) Doing things the wrong way or at the wrong time will be punished.

And there is no infraction too small to be punished.

As a result of the harsh discipline, the guards are able to exert near complete control over the prison and so guarantee the physical safety of the prisoners. As in a military boot camp, the system seems geared towards breaking down old behavior patterns and instilling more disciplined self-control and an ability to function in groups.

In fact, many foreigners with boot camp experience say the prison environment is similar.

Isolation In Japanese Prisons

As part of the discipline, Japanese prison can be an isolating experience.

Prisoners are generally allowed to write to and meet with only their family, their lawyer, and embassy representatives. They are not allowed to correspond with or have visits from friends, fiancees, or anyone else, though, at times, exceptions have been made.

Prison officials control the length of each visit; by law, no less than five minutes and no more than 30 minutes. Visits are conducted through a glass partition. There is no concept of conjugal or contact visits.

There are limitations on the number of letters that prisoners can write but no limit on the number of letters they may receive. However, all mail is censored, and long delays are typical. Prisoners who cannot write in English or Japanese may find no censor is available and thus cannot send letters. Prisoners must pay for all postage and stationary; lacking funds, they cannot write letters.

Prison officials may prevent letters from coming in or going out if, in their exclusive opinion, “those who may disturb the discipline and order of the criminal institution or hamper performing smooth correctional treatment.” Some prisoners claim this rule is invoked arbitrarily or as an unofficial punishment.

In addition, there are strict limitations on communication between prisoners. Talking is permitted only at prescribed times during the day, usually only briefly before lights out. Getting caught talking otherwise is punished.

Punishment For Japanese Inmates

Punishment takes many forms. The most common is loss of privileges, such as recreation time, access to TV, and loss of more sought-after job assignments.

However, the most severe punishment involves sitting on one’s knees, Japanese-style, on the floor, facing a blank wall, for hours, or even days, though the prisoner returns to his cell at night. The sitting position grows painful, and the isolation is difficult. Only limited toilet breaks are allowed, and only at the guards’ discretion.

sitting on one's knees punishment
from: Abashiri Prison Museum

Some prisoners have reported they were forced to eat out of a bowl on the floor, dog-style. Full-on solitary confinement is also used.

Labor, Food, And Health Care in Japanese Prisons

Japanese prisons are rarely heated and never air-conditioned, which creates significant discomfort in a nation that has four distinct seasons. Cases of frostbite among inmates are not unheard of, and medical care is limited to extreme instances. Because prisons pay doctors very little and because of the social stigma, there is an acute shortage of medical professionals available. Some claim only the most unskilled doctors, desperate for patients, will help.

Bathing is also strictly regulated and typically only allowed two or three times a week.

Nearly every prisoner works, either in maintaining the prison or as contract labor for private companies, six or six and half days a week. They earn pennies an hour. Some Japanese gangsters are provided vocational training as part of a program designed to break them free from gang control once released.

Meals are strictly limited based on prison caloric standards, and most inmates consider them inadequate and lose significant weight. Meals three times a day are usually cheap rice with barley, some root vegetables, and small amounts of fish or meat. Foreigners can opt for bread instead of rice, but otherwise, the food is the same. Most prisons can accommodate Muslim or Hindu eating requirements, however, if a religious preference is declared when an inmate enters the system.

So, in Japan, stay on the right side of the law. You should, by now, be convinced that you very much want to stay out of the local prisons!

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