Japan’s prisons
Eastern porridge
Even Japanese criminals are orderly and well-behaved
The Economist - Feb 23rd 2013 | TOKYO

WITH its façade of red brick, Chiba prison, just outside Tokyo, looks like a Victorian-era British jail. That is where the similarity ends. Prisons in Britain are often loud, dirty and violent, but Chiba resembles a somewhat Spartan retirement home for former soldiers. The corridors and the tiny cells are spotless. Uniformed prisoners shuffle in lockstep behind guards and bow before entering rooms.

The deputy warden, Hiroyuki Shinkai, who once visited British prisons as a UN researcher, was shocked by what he found. He can still recall his surprise at seeing inmates freely mingling and talking. “Japanese penal philosophy is different,” he explains. In Japan, talking is banned, except during break-times. Unpaid work is a duty, not a choice.
Japan incarcerates its citizens at a far lower rate than most developed countries: 55 per 100,000 people compared with 149 in Britain and 716 in America. The country’s justice ministry can also point to low rates of recidivism. Yet increasingly the nation’s 188 prisons and detention centres come in for harsh criticism, particularly over their obsession with draconian rules and secrecy (on February 21st the government unexpectedly announced it had hanged three men for murder), and their widespread use of solitary confinement.

Criminal courts in Japan have long relied heavily on confessions for proof of guilt. Though the accused have a right to silence, failure to admit a crime is considered bad sport. Besides, police have strong incentives to extract a confession and, with up to 23 days to interrogate a suspect, the blunt tools to do so, as a stream of disturbing incidents has shown. Detectives tracking down an anonymous hacker extracted separate confessions from four innocent people before being forced in December into a humiliating apology. Court conviction rates are over 99%.

Over two-thirds of the inmates of Chiba prison were convicted for crimes that caused death—mainly murder, arson or manslaughter. Half are serving life sentences and, in Japan, life means life. The average prisoner is 50. Many of them have never used a mobile phone or a credit card. Conjugal visits are banned, so marriages break down.

In the prison workshops, inmates silently make leather shoes and furniture, overseen by a single unarmed guard. No riot has taken place in a Japanese prison since just after the second world war. Escapes are rare, and drugs and contraband almost non-existent. The prison notes that its ratio of one guard to four prisoners is roughly half that in Britain. Yet no one can recall a violent attack on a staff member.

A landmark report in 1995 by Human Rights Watch, a lobby group, said this remarkable order “is achieved at a very high cost”, including the violation of fundamental human rights and falling far short of international standards. Europeans and Americans inside Japan’s prison system have developed mental problems. Yet for Mr Shinkai the differences with the West are a point of pride. “Of course we look too strict to outsiders,” he says. But his inmates, he goes on, all come from Japanese society. For them, it works beautifully.


International Centre for Prison Studies

Country JAPAN
Ministry responsible Ministry of Justice
Prison administration Correction Bureau
Contact address 1-1-1 Kasumigaseki, Chiyoda-Ku, Tokyo 100 - 8977, Japan
Telephone/fax/website tel: +81 3 3592 7609
fax: +81 3 3591 3594
web: www.moj.go.jp
Head of prison administration
(and title)
Yoshinobu Onuki
Director General
Prison population total
(including pre-trial detainees / remand prisoners)
at 31.12.2011 (Ministry of Justice)
Prison population rate
(per 100,000 of national population)
based on an estimated national population of 127.73 million at end of 2011 (Japanese government statistics bureau)
Pre-trial detainees / remand prisoners
(percentage of prison population)
Female prisoners
(percentage of prison population)
Juveniles / minors / young prisoners
incl. definition (percentage of prison population)
(31.12.2009 - under 20)
Foreign prisoners
(percentage of prison population)
Number of establishments /
(April 2011 - comprising 62 adult prisons, 8 branch prisons, 7 juvenile prisons, 8 detention houses and 103 branch detention houses. The prison administration has responsibility also for juvenile classification homes and juvenile training schools, whose occupants are not included in the prison population.)
Official capacity of prison system 90,354
Occupancy level (based on official
Recent prison population trend
(year, prison population total, prison population rate)
1992 45,082 (36)
1995 47,398 (38)
1998 52,713 (42)
2001 65,508 (51)
2004 76,413 (60)
2007 79,809 (62)
2010 72,975 (57)

World Prison Brief supplied by the International Centre for Prison Studies, maintained by Roy Walmsley
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