David McKelvey

Japanese Prisons

Kazuo Ishikawa spent the majority of his adult life behind bars. Convicted of murder in 1964, he has since been granted parole in 1994 and is fighting to redeem his name. The reason? Ishikawa is reasonably considered a victim impacted by a justice system overly reliant on confessions. Ishikawa was held in a police station for thirty days whilst subjected to harsh interrogation. After being deprived of sleep and blackmailed to maintain his honor, he signed a full confession that he could not read as he was illiterate at the time. The murder he supposedly committed took place during a dinner he was having with his family, yet that alibi was rejected in favour of his confession of guilt.[1]Stories like this are familiar in the Japanese system of Justice and help to expose glaring shortcomings in their adherence to upholding universal human rights.

David McKelvey
Image courtesy of David McKelvey, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Japan, on the whole, is a remarkably peaceful society compared to other developed western powers. Crime rates are exceptionally low, gun violence is rare and muggings hardly occur.[2] The stereotypical perception of the Japanese as dovish, stern-rule followers generally stands true. However, a shadow lurks behind this pristine exterior. The systems for both prosecution and imprisonment are hotbeds for human rights abuse as well as counterproductive in achieving the goals of both prison and prosecution. The goal of imprisonment should be focused on the rehabilitation of inmates for eventual reintegration into society. The use of the death penalty and psychological torture in Japanese prisons violates these goals as well as basic human rights. Another blot lies on the prosecution system. The goal for prosecution should be to accurately assess guilt with a limited margin of error. As Ishikawa’s case presents, the emotional and life-altering damage of false convictions is no laughing matter or just another statistic. These principals for a proper system of justice will be weighed against the practicalities for reform present in the current government and nation.

The role of prisons in society should be critically assessed and removed of old, redundant methodologies for punishment. Instead of physical and mental punishment, prisons should strive to rehabilitate citizens who have gone astray from the common law. The days of medieval torture are thankfully over, yet the concept of brute punishment instead of rehabilitation still lingers. The death penalty is such an example that rides erroneously against the idea of rehabilitation. In Chiba prison outside Tokyo, death row inmates experience draconian rules of conduct.[3] Nearly all social interactions are limited. Talking to other inmates is off limits and permission must be given by a guard to speak at all. Even eye contact is forbidden unless initiated by a guard. Reading is considered an exceptional privilege few inmates are allowed. Possibly the most shocking and baffling procedure pertains to how inmates are notified about the time of execution. In American prisons, the death row inmate is told in advance when the execution will take place. In Japan, no prior alert is given until the morning the administration decides to carry the execution out. Each day, all the inmates must crouch on hands and knees from 8am to noon in silent anticipation for their end.[4] After ten to twenty years, this daily torture of suspended dread is unquestionably condemnable. Therefore, the procedure for death penalties should at the very least be reformed because of blatant human rights abuses. However, a procedural change is not a bold enough reform. The death penalty itself should be stricken from the code of law not only because of human rights but because it fundamentally rejects the primary purpose of the prison system. The goal of rehabilitation instead of brute punishment cannot be met if the government views severe criminals as inherently immoral and unable to change for the better.

While death row inmates are treated extremely poorly, normal prisoners serving life sentences with parole are also traumatized by punishment. On top of the previous rules death row inmates face, other prisoners are forced to carry out unpaid work. Paid work in the prisons of other countries is an important facet of rehabilitation. It provides a small stash of cash to help the ex-convict to financially transition into everyday life. At the same time, it builds transferable skills for ex-convicts to use in securing employment after their time. A little financial adaptability and a better prospect for employment helps turn the sudden shock of release into a sustainable lifestyle with lower rates of recidivism. The Japanese system, however, does not foster this type of rehabilitation. Workers receive no pay for their work and some are forced into menial tasks that build little to no skills. For instance, one task that is assigned is to fold a piece of paper 8 times, unfold it 8 times, and then repeat for the day.[5] Chiba prison also bans conjugal visits from family members or loved ones. This policy prevents inmates from maintaining non-convict relationships on the outside and only goes to further the idea of isolated punishment that is ruining prospects for a future life. Another facet of the odd psychological and physical torment is the need to ask prison guards for permission to stand up;[6] prisoners sit, cross-legged, for nearly the entire day. The result, as Toshio Oriyama stated in an interview, was ‘when we took a bath, the bums of all my inmates were dark like bedsores.’[7] At the point when painful sores develop from inactivity, it is easy to see that procedure is too draconian and serves no purpose. Policies like this only seek to punish and actively deteriorate the mind and body instead of prepping individuals for reentry to the world. Therefore, this bunch of eclectic prisons procedures is contrary to the just goal of rehabilitation after prison. By refusing to accept the possibility of change, restricting future success with unpaid work and by causing traumatizing emotional and physical damage, the Japanese prison system is undermining the values of proper justice.

The system of justice consists of not only rehabilitating prisoners but also correctly prosecuting criminals; the conditions in prison are worse enough, and the case of Ishikawa going through them whilst innocent really rattles your sense of justice. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the vast majority of criminal cases do not rely on personal confessions. The Japanese system effectively deals with minor violators and stray youths through lenient punishments and cooperation with families and local community support. However, the more serious cases, such as murder, arson, and manslaughter, generally depend on this system of confession of guilt. As is the case with Ishikawa, police and prosecutors strive to extract a confession, even if it is fabricated. A system where 89 per cent of criminal prosecutions were underpinned by confessions reveals just how vital they are to the decision-making process. And with a 99.8 per cent conviction rate with a confession, ambitious prosecutors are incentivized to seek confessions in order to secure their own careers. The authorities have a variety of tools at their disposal to garner a confession. Any suspect may be held for up to 23 days without reason. Police have gone as far as prodding detainees with pins while they slept in order to sleep deprive them. The fabrication of confessions is a practice that allows prosecutors to tailor-make a confession to fit their case. Ishikawa, for instance, could not even read the confession he “wrote” at the time because he was illiterate.[8] This impetus for confessions combined with the tools to illicit responses is actively undermining the goal of prosecution – to find the true suspect. Instead of completing cases and ruining the lives of the innocent, the system should attempt to reduce their margin of error by screening confessions for invalidities.

The prison system and the prosecution system are both blemished on the Japanese system of Justice. What is the likelihood these aspects will be reformed? Firstly, there is no large public support to change the status quo.[9] The civic body is either unaware or they believe in the harsh punishment being delivered. One avenue for change lies in the judges who actually hear the cases. Despite potential support, the impetus for reform is not strong enough or spread across a majority of judges. Instead, it is mainly judges close to retirement who are in favour of reform; they do not have a future career to safeguard like the younger judges.[10] Hopes of passing legislation against the death penalty also look bleak. The liberal Democratic Party that took control in 2012 is against banning the penalty. On the bright side, there is momentum to institute new reform within the policing sector. The “tools” used by police to force confessions are potentially going to be limited with a new bill.[11] The bill will require interrogations to be filmed, will make fabricated confessions illegal and will add greater transparency. These new policies would be beneficial and help to reduce the margin of error in convicting innocents as well as provide better support for those already imprisoned. An increased public support for reform is necessary for the larger cogs of government policy to gain traction and move toward reform though. Changing the way citizens think on the outside is vital for improving conditions and rehabilitating those on the inside. In the 1980s, Toyofumi Yoshinaga, a legal assistant at the corrections Bureau in Tokyo, said ‘During the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the walls of one of our prisons did fall down’ then smiled and said ‘no one escaped.’[12] While indeed, it is great no inmates escaped, it also goes to show that psychologically and emotionally crippling convicts to the point where a life on the outside is deemed too alien and daunting is not what prison should be about. The ethos applied to criminals and prisoners in general must shift from debilitating confinement to edifying rehabilitation.

[1] The Economist,. “Ninety-Nine Per Cent Guilty”. N.p., 2015.

[2] The Economist,. “Extractor, Few Fans”. N.p., 2015. Web. 9 Feb. 2016.

[3] The Economist,. “Silent Screams”. N.p., 2015. Web.

[4] The Economist,. “Eastern Porridge”. N.p., 2013. Web

[5] The Economist,. “Silent Screams”. N.p., 2015. Web.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Economist,. “Ninety-Nine Per Cent Guilty”. N.p., 2015.

[9] Editorial,. “Criminal Justice System Reform”. JapanTimes 2015. Aug 17th.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Webb, James. “What We Can Learn From Japanese Prisons | Jim Webb”. Jameswebb.com. N.p., 1984.

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