Yes, you read that right. I went to prison yesterday.


It was, in fact, a field trip for my Peace and Human Rights class, which has been interesting, to say the least. The class has really meandered a lot. This was the class that went to Hiroshima; I didn’t go with them for monetary reasons, so I felt rather obligated to go on this trip. I knew that it would be very interesting.

We took a chartered bus up to the Shiwa prefecture, near Lake Biwa – only about an hour. It was fascinating to be on the road again – my family does a lot of driving, so I’m used to being in the car (and secretly miss it. Don’t ask me why, I have no clue.)  We went onto Japan’s Route 1, which runs from Osaka to Kyoto. If you go into Google Maps, you would be able to see that Osaka and Kyoto are basically one large city that fits in the large valley between two mountain ranges. (This also causes all of the pollution from the cities to stay in the air, forming smog.) Lake Biwa is above Kyoto, on the other side of one of the mountain ranges.

The highways in Japan have very tall walls around them, so it was at times very difficult to see anything scenic. I asked Lisa, a friend from NYC, about them and she says there are lots of them in the U.S. (I’ve just never seen anything like them.) The conglomeration of the city faded fairly quickly into harvested rice paddies as we sped towards the mountains. The weather was clouded and moody. We went into a tunnel underneath the mountains. From there we had glimpses of the mountains as we went through a series of tunnels. The foliage is just beginning to turn, so the wooded mountains were simply beautiful. I wish I could’ve taken some video, but the prison didn’t want us to bring cameras.

On the other side of the mountains, the scenery was completely different. It was almost like driving through Maine again – small towns surrounded by woods – despite the fact that a lot of the woods consisted of bamboo and Japanese-style roofs are a prominent part of architecture everywhere. It was here, surrounded by scenery, we drove into the prison’s parking lot.

We waited there for perhaps 15 minutes while our teacher spoke in Japanese with the officials. Dr. Scott can speak Japanese almost fluently and often has Japanese speakers in class, translating for them. Only 40 people were allowed to come on this trip, the maximum allowed by the prison. The prison had actually changed the date fairly close to the date we were going to go, making it 4 days earlier, which, fortunately, still worked out for me.

After waiting, we were allowed to go inside. We passed the area for family members to wait and went to (essentially) a classroom. The first thing I noticed was that it was very cold in that room. It was set up with brochures and an electronic device at every seat. We sat down, and one of the Japanese prison guards spoke briefly with the professor, then left. “We’ll have to wait for about a half hour before the the person we’re waiting for will come,” he told us. “It’s cold in here, isn’t it? It’s because Japanese prisons don’t have heat or AC except for in the administrative offices.”

And this is absolutely true. One of the theories behind Japanese prisons, Dr. Scott has told us, is that prisoners should not receive better accommodations than the poorest people in Japan. The smallest, cheapest rooms Japanese people can rent are two tatami-mat rooms (these are still often too expensive for the homeless.) (To clarify: Rooms in Japan are measured by tatami-mat size – how many tatami mats can fit in a room. My dorm room is an 8 tatami room, or 12 ft. x 12 ft. A standard Kyoto tatami-mat is almost 1 meter by almost 2 meters.) We’ll talk about the size of prison accommodations later. But the poor wouldn’t have climate control in their rooms, and thus neither do the prisoners.

Finally, the half-hour passed and the prison guard came into the room to speak with us. I believe he was fairly high up in the ranks, but I will never know for sure. He explained the information contained in the packets in Japanese, and Dr. Scott translated for us. The prison we were visiting contained first-time offenders who were serving up to 10 years for mostly robbery and embezzlement. Japanese prisons hold different offenders, with separate prisons for yakuza (Japanese mafia), lifetime imprisonment, women, and foreigners. There are around 700 inmates in this prison.

Now, my class has learned that Japan still uses the death penalty – the majority of which are by hanging. We received a special lecture by Dr. Tracy (a lawyer – I have him for another class) on the death penalty before coming here.

After the talk, we went out into the prison. We were all required to wear masks – not for our own protection, but because the prison is (rightfully) concerned about us passing germs on to the inmates. The electronic devices I mentioned earlier were earpieces attached to a type of walkie-talkie. Dr. Scott had the mike so that he could translate for us without having to shout over the entire group. We were instructed to walk in two lines at all times, and we set off into the prison.

Dr. Scott had pointed out earlier that the prison would be looking it’s best for us, since they had advance notice of our arrival. He says he wishes he could see it on a normal day. He told us before going into the prison that we should keep our eyes open, but that the prisoners are instructed not to make any eye contact with us at all. Upon entering, the first thing that I noticed was the smell – not overpowering, but enough to be unsettling – of a mix between kitchen trash and sweat. In fact, I was a little glad to have the mask because it helped with the smell.

One of the first things we went to see was a nicely decorated, albeit small, auditorium where the prisoners go for recreational activities and exercise when the weather is bad outside. Along the walls were examples of calligraphy done by the prisoners. You’ll notice throughout the course of this tour that all of the prisoners are socialized in groups. The prisoners eat, work, recreate, and live together. The purpose of this hall is also to house the clubs that meet within the prison (for example, ping pong club and calligraphy club) and for celebrations like New Year’s. The point of this is not just to help the prisoners socialize when they go back out into society, but also to maintain the interactions that existed before their imprisonment. “To be confined in solitude,” Dr. Scott translated for us, “is inhumane.”

We then went on to see the prisoners at work. All prisoners in Japan are required (the prison guard in a later Q&A session used the word “forced”) to work. This could be a problem with potential weapons being taken into the cells, but the guards do thorough (as in – naked thorough) searches of the prisoners before and after work times. The work is contracted out to private companies. The prisoners receive a Y1000 per month stipend from their work and do not work on holidays or weekends. This has a dual purpose – there is a section of the Japanese constitution (I was told by Dr. Scott) that says, “It is the mandate of all Japanese to work,” and that it helps the prisoners to learn vocations to use outside of prison. The labor was mostly manual – we saw prisoners in green uniforms sewing sheets, doing calligraphy on paper products, woodworking, fixing things around the prison, and gardening. Compare this with American prisons, where inmates will spend a lot of time in their cells, doing nothing (note: I haven’t been into an American prison.)

One question that got asked was what the most common type of punishment was. The reply we received was this – that when a prisoner does not obey the rules, he will be sent to sit in his cell, alone, and contemplate on what he did. While certainly Japanese prisons are known for violent punishment, this is not a lot of extremely violent criminals. “The punishment,” said Dr. Scott, “is very reflective of Japanese principles.”

We also got to see the ofuro(Japanese bath) without any prisoners in it, of course. The Japanese traditionally bathe in a public setting, sitting on stools to clean themselves, then relaxing in a tub full of steaming-hot water. The observation room for this was so small we had to go in 7 at a time. The bathing room was traditional, except that the bath was not a natural hot spring, but had a spigot. There was a clock on the wall, as the prisoners get 15 minutes to bathe. I’ve forgotten the figure on how often the prisoners are allowed to bathe. One person asked why the prisoners were allowed to bathe instead of shower, and one of the guards answered matter-of-factly, “Because it’s traditional.”

As our group was waiting for the others to go in and out of the booth, one of the girls started talking in Japanese to one of our guards. I couldn’t make out much of what she was saying, but it sounded like the guard enjoyed his work.

From there we got to see what the prisoners ate. Japanese prisoners eat as much as their work allows – we saw the three different types of meals, all of which were very watery-looking (as in, not filling.) The smallest meal, for those that don’t work, is 1200 calories a day, the next largest, for those that do normal work, is 1800 calories a day, and the meal for those that do hard labor is 2300 calories for the day. It averages Y410 a day to feed a prisoner in Japan – roughly $4.10 USD. Contrast this with my daily budget of Y1000 ($10 USD) for meals. Remember what I said about the Japanese poor – I believe this is the same idea at work. The homeless in Japan can get maybe that much food from soup kitchens.

We went outside to look at the grounds. The prisoners are allowed to exercise together outside, but there was a confinement area for the non-social prisoners to exercise – essentially a walled-in concrete compound with  a platform for watching the prisoner. The surrounding security was not obvious – there was a tower that wasn’t very tall, but didn’t have a guard in it, just a camera.

On the grounds there was the traditional prison that had lasted since the Tokugawa era (1600s) on that very site. When the new prison was built in the 1960s, the old prison was preserved and moved out of the way. It was fairly dark, with the prison record books on display under glass. The cell took up most of the space, which was meant to hold 5 prisoners in one cell. It was raised up from the floor, and the bars were hefty wooden beams spaced very close together. Also on display were woven bamboo hoods the prisoners wore to shame them. This is to take away the pride of the prisoner, so that he cannot, for example, “glare hatefully at people,” as my instructor put it.

From there we went into the cells. The first cells we went to were the smallest ones. Japanese prisons do not have solitary confinement cells. The smallest Japanese cells consist of about 4 tatami mats for 2 or 3 prisoners. The cells had heavy metal doors and bolts, as well as a small barred window to be able to see into the rooms. There were a lot of things in these rooms – the personal belongings, kept in suitcases, folded futons, a toilet, books on bookshelves, a television (the prisoners are only allowed to watch TV from 7 pm to 9 pm), and, interestingly, a small foldable table with an Othello board. I did a double take on this, and yes – it was indeed an Othello board, with Othello pieces. There were also other pieces in bowls – presumably to play the traditional games of go and shogi on the Othello board.

Now, at the beginning of the school year, my roommate and I had to live with a third roommate for a week during orientation (a student who was going to be doing a homestay.) Space was tight for three people in an 8-tatami room, I can’t imagine what it would be like for three in a room half the size. (One could argue that we have a large table on the tatami in our room as well, so if we didn’t have it, it would be less crowded, and that the size of the futon also matters.)

The next size up was a 10-tatami (I think) room for 7-8 inmates, but due to overcrowding, the number of inmates per room is 10. That’s 1 tatami mat per person. The things in the rooms were the same, but it blew my mind how so many people could fit in one room.

After seeing this, we were taken back to the classroom for questions and answers with the “head guard,” I’ll call him. When we went back in, I noticed I had gotten used to the cold. The guard took off his decorated hat (the guards all wore blue decorated uniforms. I also noticed a woman among the guards as we walked in.) and a handkerchief, wiping the inside of his hat and the sweat from his head as he sat down. At first, during the questions, he was very reserved, but as they wore on, he got more and more animated in his answers. One of the questions he wasn’t so animated about was this one, a question that our teacher wanted us to ask:

Q: Is there sex between prisoners? Or rape?

A: Arimasen. (lit. There isn’t.)

Dr. Scott said that one of  the other times he’s come to the prison, the guard was a bit more forthright, saying that there was sex going on between prisoners, but that it wasn’t between homosexual men. In the wake of the previous question, someone asked about homosexual couples in the prison, and the guard answered that if it was discovered that two men were doing something like that, they would be separated immediately, “for their own protection.”

A question was also asked about groups that form within the prisons – gangs. The guard explained that since there are so many guards for the men, they were very aware of when trouble was brewing. They would be able to separate the groups before tensions would get too high. Besides, in communal living, one has to be socially cooperative.

Another interesting answer came to a question about friendships between guards and prisoners – whether or not prisoners are referred to by name or their number. The guard stated that many times the prisoners would talk with the prisoners as a father would – using their name, but without the “-san” ending (which indicates respect.) But the idea that the guards take a paternalistic attitude towards the prisoners is an interesting one.

Afterwards, we got onto the bus and rode back home.

For International Communication Class/Dr. Reynolds: On an almost completely unrelated note, it was also interesting to carefully watch a Japanese person with no knowledge of English during the translation process. I sat and watched the guard’s expressions throughout the process, and it was very interesting. I didn’t draw many significant conclusions from the experience – I know that I observed the same reactions I have to someone speaking in another language in the guard. When I’m listening to people speaking in Japanese, I know that I’m listening very closely to catch what I can, but the guard didn’t have a background in English, so his listening was much more passive. His reactions were perhaps most interesting when the audience had a visible reaction to the translations (us laughing or being surprised.) He perked up, obviously interested in what  he had said that was so amusing, or what on earth we were laughing at. I think this is an entirely natural response. I wonder if there is some sort of study on reactions to foreign languages. Certainly a lot of people have experienced the art of listening to people converse in a foreign language. It almost makes it easier to notice the natural reactions of people having a conversation if you don’t understand what they’re saying.

For readers: I will soon be going to Kobe with some friends on November 22 and then to Osaka for a cultural lesson in the tea ceremony/wearing of a kimono/shogi/origami on November 29th. I might also go for an American-style Thanksgiving dinner in Osaka as well. Stay tuned also for the descent of Christmas into Japan!