What Are Japanese Prisons Like?

  • In Japanese prisons, sentenced inmates reside in community cells, each holding 6 to 12 inmates. The rooms are Japanese-style, with tatami floors and Japanese futons for inmates to rest on.
  • Foreign prisoners are usually kept separate from each other in Western-style prison cells with beds or in Japanese-style solitary cells (which are smaller than Western-style cells).
Behind these prison gates lies a gamut of activities and systems that are discussed in greater detail here in terms of the restrictions, food, hygiene, work-life, and education.

Japan Prison Restrictions

Japanese prison life is known to be exceedingly strict to ensure that inmates never traverse shady paths. According to a recent documentary on Japanese prisons, life there is “regulated precisely to the millimeter”. Being tardy by as little as 1 minute in completing any assigned activity often means disciplinary action.

A typical daily schedule of a Japanese prisoner (Credits: English Lawyers Japan)

Prison life in Japan is also infamous for its solitary confinement, given that interaction with other inmates is limited to just exercise and free time. Even the way one behaves in their cells can end up with them receiving physical punishment by dozens of guards in the much dreaded padded room, which is a soundproof room where noisy prisoners go as punishment. Such punishment was meted out to Mark Karpelés who only banged on the wall in his cell once while serving his 2.5-year jail term in Tokyo for suspected fraud and embezzlement.

Although prisons in Japan have been condemned for their stringent rules, prisoners who demonstrate a greater willingness to reform and turn over a new leaf are given greater alleviations of the restrictions. Prisoners are assigned a restriction level from 1 to 4, which influences which amenities and treatments are alleviated. In a way, the system acts as an incentive for prisoners to maintain discipline and self-control throughout their stay behind bars.

High Hygiene Standards

Luckily, Japanese prisons are neither beleaguered with overcrowding nor unkempt, unsanitary conditions. Japan’s correctional institutions such as prisons have been strict and diligent in ensuring that inmates adopt good hygiene practices to avoid the petri-dish effect of COVID-19, among other viral transmissions.

Everything is arranged in impeccable order without fail, including sandals being lined up neatly in front of the cells, as shown below.

Credits: Java Discover

Meals

Due to the low incarceration rate in Japan, a scant 37 per 100,000 people as of 2022, more resources are available for well-balanced meals that keep prisoners healthy and alert to carry out their duties well.

Japan’s prison food typically comprises a good mixture of all essential food groups. You have carbohydrates in the form of whole-grain rice boiled with barley. There is adequate protein from natural sources such as grilled or pan-fried mackerel. And of course, not forgetting vitamins and minerals in the low-fat vegetable dishes, miso soup, or “Harusame” noodle salads served among other menu options.

If you would like to experience the same meals that Japan’s prisoners consume, pop by the Prison Cafeteria which is located in Abashiri, Hokkaido. So far, this is the only eatery that serves authentic prison food in Japan, using the same ingredients as the penitentiary nearby. What’s more impressive is how finger-licking and hearty the food has been to patrons.

One of the many lunch sets served at Prison Cafeteria (Credits: Japan Cheapo)

Education

Credits: The Japan Times

Dating back to the early 1870s, education became one of the core aspects of prison life in Japan. Reading and writing classes were introduced before ethics lessons and correspondence courses came into practice.

A majority of prisoners have poor academic performances. Some are school dropouts while others are deemed to be underachievers despite having fulfilled all educational requirements. The latter group can complete their studies at the high school building at Matsumoto juvenile prison. As of 2018, male inmates can be transferred on request to the school. 6 inmates graduated from the school in 2002, and 3 in 2018.

Moreover, penal institutions have been conducting classes for academically weaker elementary school and junior high school inmates, or those who are seen to have issues with reform and rehabilitation. The institution may also offer high school or tertiary level courses for inmates whose academic progress is deemed conducive to their reentry into society.

Despite the steadily broadening array of educational materials catered to inmates, all information is in Japanese only. Thus, foreigners or those who have a poor command of the language have to be accustomed to using it in their revisions and day-to-day conversations with others.

Work-life

Credits: Gaijinass

Prison work gives inmates windows of opportunities to maintain their physical and mental welfare, as well as rehabilitate and reflect on their purpose and responsibilities in life. Intrinsic values such as discipline, empathy, and collaboration can be better inculcated in the inmates so that they can reintegrate into society more smoothly. Since September 2018, prison work has been carried out in around 76 penal institutions nationwide, from juvenile prisons to detention houses.

The work assigned to prisoners is dependent on their aptitudes, so it can range in nature from woodworking and metal-based work to printing and dressmaking.

The four main categories of prison work are tabulated below.

Category

Description

Production

Involves manufacturing of raw materials as state goods or business goods

Social contribution

Allows inmates to contribute back to the community

Self-employed

Involves accounting and management roles

Vocational training

Allows inmates to attain qualifications and skill sets relevant to today’s workforce

Together with correctional instructions, prisoners work typically no longer than 8 hours a day. Based on a 2017 financial report, the monthly wage of a working inmate in Japan averages around 4,300 yen. Although remuneration is given to prisoners only at the time of their release, they may use it to purchase daily necessities or for dispatching to their families.

Furthermore, compensation is given to prisoners who get inflicted with physical injury while working. Fortunately, Japan is known for religiously complying with occupational safety and health laws when it comes to prison work.

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