By Christopher Zoukis
On February 23, 2013, The Economist ran a story entitled “Japan’s Prisons: Eastern Porridge.” This article explained how well-mannered and orderly Japanese prisoners appear to outsiders, and how the age-old concepts of respect and duty still seem to apply to their modern, incarcerated class. Since these values seem so foreign to the Western incarcerated society, Japan’s story warrants a review and analysis.
Here is an excerpt from the The Economist:
“With its facade of red brick, Chiba prison, just outside of Tokyo, looks like a Victorian-era British jail. That is where the similarity ends. Prisons in Britain [and the United States, for that matter] 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. . . [T]alking is banned, except during break-times. Unpaid work is a duty, not a choice.”
The article goes on to present Japanese prisons in context with the rest of the world. On a high note, Japan incarcerates their citizens at a very low rate: only 55 per 100,000 citizens. This is in direct contrast to 149 per 100,000 citizens in Britain and 716 per 100,000 citizens in the United States (the world’s top incarcerator of citizens). However, human rights abuses in Japan’s prisons have been alleged by many, including Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy group which monitors such activities.
In Japan, even though criminal defendants have the right to remain silent, it is “considered bad sport” to not admit to a crime when guilty. But this pales in comparison to the fact that Japanese authorities can interrogate suspects for up to 23 days. In the United States, most defendants can only be subject to 24 hours of detention sans arrest warrant, and once they request their attorney, all questions from investigators must stop. It is perhaps no wonder Japan boasts a 99 percent conviction rate. Interestingly, federal prosecutions in the United States also result in a near 100% conviction rate. I believe the generally accepted number is now around 97%. The difference is that the United States uses trumped-up charges, a plea-bargain culture, and atrocious sentencing guidelines to strong-arm defendants in to guilty pleas, thus convictions. Obviously, the snitch-or-rot-in-prison-for-the-rest-of-your-life prosecution culture is very troubling in our own country.
The article concludes by presenting Human Rights Watch’s complaint that order is obtained only “at a very high cost,” the “violation of fundamental human rights and falling far short of international standards.” In rebuke, Deputy Warden Hiroyuki Shinkai presents the idea that Japanese prisons look cruel to outsiders because they are not Japanese; to him, they work just fine and are something to be heralded.
The concept of being on the outside looking in is certainly appropriate here. We, as a Western people, naturally look at other cultures as a bit odd. We tend to feel that our ways are correct and others, particularly Eastern and Middle Eastern nations’ ways, are somewhat backwoods or antiquated; uninformed to say the least. In this case, perhaps Japanese prisons, while not the best model in the world, are, in fact, better than our own. Their prisoners seem to understand the rules and abide by them, in stark contrast to the majority of American prisoners who view discipline with disdain. The men at Chiba seem to accept their penance and their duty, whereas American prisoners tend to look to socio-economic or other, non-personal reasons for their confinement. Perhaps they have a point, as the consensus among all parties is that our prison systems breed recidivism above all else. Maybe Japan’s “odd” way of dealing with prison is worth discussing. Surely, the present Western model is broken and failing.
At least this is what it appears to an outsider looking in. An American examining a Japanese culture or society is akin to a Nepali pondering the structure of Portuguese values; there is no base experience to work from. Truth be told, I’ve never been to a Japanese prison and have read few articles about them. Thus, my view is just as uninformed as many others. But the concepts presented in the article were thought provoking. And that has to count for something, because it seems clear that our system of justice and corrections is a broken one, serving no one except the vendors who supply the prisons and have a definite financial stake in keeping others under lock and key. Surely, this can’t be the priority. Maybe some Japanese thinking would be worth investigating.