We have discussed at length some of the brutal realities of being arrested in Japan, and going through the initial legal process.  This is a look at what happens once someone is convicted and transported to prison. Specifically, we are looking at Fuchu Prison located in a suburb of Tokyo.

Fuchu prison, is the location where the majority of foreign offenders find themselves doing time in Japan.  It’s notoriously strict and besides the foreigners, with over 40 nationalities represented, it also houses various members of the Yakuza.  Notorious gangster Shinobu Tsukasa-kumicho did a 5-year sentence which ended in 2011, for violations of the swords and firearms law, at Fuchu prison. He also enjoyed a 13 year sentence in the 1970s for murdering a fellow gang member with a Samurai sword.

Japanese prison is notoriously strict, to the point of garnering condemnation from multiple human rights groups.  These are some of the things foreigners can expect while inside.

How does someone get to Japanese Prison?

While awaiting trial, which could take months or even years depending on the complexity of the case, you first spend time in Police jail, 警察署 keisatsusho.  This is the time during which the prosecutor and the police are collecting evidence regarding your case.  If it’s something relatively simple, such as assault, you could be confined for 1-5 months here.  These conditions are generally very spartan.  We have written about them in more detail here.

Takaido Police station/jail

However, once you are moved to a regional detention facility, for example the Tokyo county jail; 東京拘置所 Tōkyō Kōchisho, the conditions are generally much more comfortable.  Although rules are strictly maintained, with a tight adherence being observed during meal times (taken in the room, highly regimented and eaten quickly) and for the daily head count (room cleaned, all members sitting in seiza in front of the cell door, shouting out your own prisoner number in Japanese, in turn), the in-room conditions are far more comfortable, clean and humane than at the Police jail.

Tokyo County Jail

Once your trial is complete and the verdict passed down, you move location. If you were found “not guilty”, good luck with that, or given a suspended sentence/執行猶予, shikkō yūyo), you are out processed that same day and left standing on a street corner holding a couple of garbage bags full of your stuff.  If you are convicted and a suspended sentence is not given, you’re going to prison.

Convict Boot Camp

According to Wikipedia, arrival at Prison goes something like the following:

On confinement, prisoners are first classified according to gendernationality, type of penalty, length of sentence, degree of criminality, and state of physical and mental health. They are then placed in special programs designed to treat their individual needs.

Well, doesn’t that sound reasonable?

The problem is that other sources paint a very different picture.

 It was like a boot camp for Nazis. They have rules for how to walk, how to use the toilet, how to sit, how to place things in your cell, etc. etc. We were being systematically turned into automatons. Everything was drilled repeatedly into our heads. If we made mistakes during the training we were pushed around and screamed at. On two occasions I witnessed prisoners who were beaten for their failure to cooperate. I personally experienced a physical beating and strangulation to the point of unconsciousness at the hands of no less than eight guards after only being in the prison for three months. 
The reason for this beating was because I was not marching properly.

The reality is that day-to-day, moment-to-moment life in Fuchu prison, or any Japanese prison, is so incredibly strict, and the punishments for infractions so brutal and arbitrary, that a boot camp or some indoctrination period is necessary to simply survive the daily grind.

How are Cells and living conditions?

Most Japanese inmates are placed in community cells, at least initially.  These conditions are similar to those found at the County jail, but stricter.  For the Japanese, who grow up in a system of rules, order and heavy pressure to adhere to these things, it’s still a difficult position to be in.  For foreigners who don’t have the cultural background and lifestyle training experienced by most Japanese, it is suffocating.

Community cells can hold 6-12 inmates.  They live in Japanese conditions; tatami matt floors, Japanese Futon, low tables etc.

In a room shared by seven prisoners, the folded futon and bedding for three of them sits neatly beside black cases in which they can store their personal belongings during the day in Onomichi prison, Japan. Monday, May 19th, 2008

Foreign prisoners are often, but not always, put in different accommodations.  Although some have said that foreigners are provided with beds, sometimes they are simply put in small, solitary cells for the duration of their prison stay.

To the uninitiated, this might seem like a good thing. It is not. The isolation of being alone, with nobody to talk to, day after day, week after week and month after month, can be crushing.  Some inmates in these solitary cells not only sleep and eat in them, but also perform their assigned labor in them.  They are let out of the cells only to “exercise” during which time communication with other inmates is forbidden, or to bath, again, communication is forbidden.

When looking at these images of living conditions, it should be noted, these are the photos Japanese authorities allow to be taken and distributed.  They are the tatemae Japanese prisons want the  world to see, and likely do not reflect the honne of the real prison experience, which according to many, is quite filthy, cold and old.

What are the Rules?

Rules absolutely define minute-to-minute existence in Japanese Prison.  If you follow them to the letter, you can exist and even accumulate additional privileges. If you diverge from the long list of rules, you will be punished, often in an arbitrary and draconian fashion.

Some of the rules include:

  • Where and how to place each item inside the cell.
  • Where to write anything; only in specified notebooks which are inspected. Not on scarp of paper or inside a magazine, or face punishment.
  • How to sit or stand during cell inspection, and during “leisure” time: No leaning, laying down or random walking around the cell.
  • How to sleep. On your back or side, never the stomach. Do not cover your face while sleeping. Do not read, talk or move around during sleep time.
  • How to march. Moving around the prison will be done by marching. Infractions result in punishments.
  • When and how to speak. Strict silence is observed the majority of the time. During leisure times, talking should be done in a low voice so as not to disturb others. Utmost respect must be used when addressing guards or punishments will follow.
  • Where to look. Looking at a guard can result in a punishment. Looking up during meal time is punishable.  Opening eyes during “reflection time” when eyes should be closed is punishable.

How are inmates Punished?

Punishments are given out for breaking prison rules, even small and seemingly insignificant ones.  Punishments come in various forms:

  • Verbal reprimand i.e. being screamed at.
  • Loss of in-prison privileges; no writing, reading, drawing, exercising etc.
  • Reduction of food for up to a week.
  • Minor solitary confinement for up to two months.
  • Major solitary confinement for up to seven days.

What does solitary confinement entail?  It’s a good question.

“Minor” solitary confinement, the most often assigned punishment, would mean being put into a small room and instructed to sit.  Some reports say you must sit in seize, others a cross-legged style.  From 0700-1700 this is the assigned position.  You do not read or write or hear music.  You just sit. You are not permitted to stand up, stretch or walk around the small cell. Toilet use is scheduled.  The following explains it well:

The cell I was placed in this time had the window blocked and wreaked of piss. The walls were mouldy and the floor surrounding the toilet was too. There were lots of bugs to keep me company. Everything was taken out of the cell except for a filthy mattress. It was explained to me that I would have to sit in the middle of my cell and face my door all day long [from 7:30am-5:00pm]. I was told to keep my hands on my lap and not to move. That was my existence for an entire month! The little bit of rice and soup I had previously received, my daily allotment, was cut in half. If I wanted to use the toilet, I had to wait until the guard gave the signal twice daily. No exercise and 1 x 15 minute shower every ten days! I was caught on several occasions exercising in my cell and time was added to my solitary confinement. After about 40 days, I was taken out of solitary and placed back in a factory to work. 

“Major” solitary, still in the official rules of Fuchu prison, is defined as “in the case of major solitary confinement, the punishment cell shall always be kept dark, and the use of beddings shall be prohibited.”

It’s also important to know that “periods of reflection”, time handcuffed, gagged, and placed in “reflection cells” are identical to solitary confinement, but are not technically recorded as punishment by the prison.  

What is the Daily schedule?

The official government schedule at Fuchu prison is as follows:

  • 0645 wake up, stow bedding, face wash, toilet.
  • 0700 roll call and room inspection.
  • 0730 breakfast and movement to work location.
  • 0800 prison industry begins.
  • 1000 fifteen minute break.
  • 1200 lunch.
  • 1400 fifteen minute break.
  • 1640 industry stops. Prisoners return to rooms.
  • 1700 roll call and prisoner inspection followed by “reflection time”.
  • 1720 Dinner.
  • 1800 “free time”.
  • 2030 preparation for sleep
  • 2100 sleep

During “prison industry” hours, the inmates are instructed to only focus, 100%, on their task.  They are not to look at other inmates or the guards but to only stare at their work task.  Meals are taken quickly and without speech or eye contact with other prisoners or guards.  “Free time” can be spent talking to other inmates in the same room, playing Japanese chess, reading and writing or doing correspondence courses.  Most inmates are subjected to bodily searches twice daily.

What are Special Problems for Foreign Inmates?

Being foreign in Japan can have advantages and disadvantages.  However, in the prison system, it is decidedly a disadvantage.  There are various reasons for this, some of the institutional and others practical, but the reality is that whatever conditions the Japanese prisoners find difficult, the you will surely find it much worse than they do.

As we mentioned earlier, many of the things Japanese inmates experience; the wall of rules and regulations and the day-to-day lifestyle in prison, are just stricter versions of things they have been doing their entire lives.  The life of rules, structured interactions and same-ness is not foreign to them, but it will be to you.

Some unique challenges for foreign inmates are:

  • Language.  The only language allowed to be spoken in prison is Japanese.  All outgoing mail must be written in Japanese, or translated (which the inmate pays for).  After Japanese the most widely spoken language by prison authorities is English. If someone in the system speaks neither Japanese nor English, they are in trouble.  Not knowing the language means not being able to understand commands which results in punishments.  This will also affect visitation.  All visits are monitored and should be in Japanese, or a translator must be provided at the inmates expense. Otherwise, visits are silent.
  • Racial insults.  There have been various cases of racial insults being used by guards while addressing foreign prisoners.  There is really nothing that can be done about this by the inmate, and speaking out against the guards will result in a backlash. A Nigerian man who was constantly referred to as a “Gorilla”, when he protested the nickname, was badly beaten by several guards resulting in permanent hearing loss in one ear.

The Conclusion…

Lots of foreigners come to Japan and don’t respect its laws. They are involved in small infractions, or things they consider small, and then they get arrested and are shocked to be looking at 3-10 years in a Japanese prison.  Simply put, do not break the law in Japan if you are not ready to do Japanese hard time.  It isn’t worth it.

Two opposing views on time spent in Fuchu illustrate this reality very well.

When I arrived at the federal detention center in Los Angeles, I felt like I had died and gone to Disneyland. The difference in the two prison systems is incredible! The treatment I received in the American prison was humane and tolerable. The Japanese system lacks any trace of humanity. I believe that Japan needs to change many things about their prison system. Japan is one of the leading high-tech societies in the world, yet the prison system is a reflection of a draconian medieval society. The prisons operate under a veil of secrecy and silence that needs to be lifted. The truth needs to be known. That is why I am writing this article. Even though I am free today there are many people who are suffering daily in Japanese prisons. Yes, I was guilty of my crime, but I feel that nobody deserves to be tortured, abused, thrown away, and isolated from everything in a living hell.

And the second conclusion, also by a former inmate at Fuchu prison:

Well as some things Terrance has said are correct he is making it worse than it seems. First off you do a crime in a foriegn country be ready to do time there. When I started doing criminal activities I prepared myself for Prison. It is a fact of life for anyone in the drug game. Don’t be such a pussy about it. I got treated how I treated them. If you could not play by the rules you got told the rules. ALL PRISONS ARE LIKE THAT!!! I am sure you were in segragation in the LA Detention Center. Bescuase I also did time in Twin Towers, Glass House, South Bay, George Bailey and SD all were just much more viloent. One thing about Japan Prison system is it WORKS. I was a career criminal before that and it woke me up. I thank God for it. We should have the same system in America. Maybe then we would not have 10 million people in US Prisons.

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