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Sunday, Nov. 17, 2002


Media refuses to aim spotlight on prison life in Japan

At a news conference Nov. 12, Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama apologized for an incident that occurred at Nagoya Prison in September, when five guards allegedly used excessive force on a prisoner, who subsequently spent three weeks in hospital. Moriyama told the press it wouldn't happen again. She also said that she had studied the situation and was told "that such a thing hasn't happened anywhere else."

The first followup question that comes to mind is: Who told her that no such thing has happened anywhere else? None of the reporters asked it, though anyone with the slightest understanding of Japan's prison system would know that Moriyama was obfuscating. But that's to be expected, since obfuscation about Japan's correctional system is built into the penal law itself.

According to the Prison Law, which was enacted in 1908, Japan's penal administration system adheres to mikko shugi, which translates as "a policy of secretiveness." In his book, "Japan's Prisons," Koichi Kikuta, a professor of criminology at Meiji University, states that the law was made to be vague. The purpose of keeping prison life hidden from public view, according to Kikuta, is that the authorities do not want to "trouble the conscience" of the citizenry. The effect is "the same as putting a lid on a jar of something that smells bad."

In the same week as the Nagoya Prison revelation, Hiroshi Kato, an NGO activist who had been held by the Chinese police for helping North Korean refugees, returned to Japan and talked about his detention. While being held, he had been strapped to a chair for hours on end and interrogated. The Japanese media called it torture, which the Chinese authorities denied. Kato himself wasn't sure, saying that "the definition of torture" is malleable.

It was difficult not to notice that the restraining device that caused the injury in the Nagoya Prison incident -- a leather belt and manacles -- was similar in form and purpose to that used on Kato during his detention. However, the media didn't pick up on this point, and, in fact, seemed more worried about how to explain the Japanese device. On Asahi TV's "News Station," the belt was put on announcer Hiroshi Kume, who laughed uncomfortably and said "It hurts," as if he hadn't already known that pain was the purpose of the thing.

The coverage since then has been equally confounding. Given that the government does not openly discuss prison affairs, news reports have been a blur of passive-voice statements and anonymous sources. We know that the five guards were arrested by the Nagoya Prosecutor's office. Supposedly, the revelations came about because of an incriminating videotape, but it hasn't been shown on TV and no news organ has admitted to seeing it. The current status of the injured prisoner, who is in the middle of a 28-month sentence for racketeering, remains unclear.

Without the media asking tough questions, the situation will never improve. On Friday, a former Nagoya inmate, emboldened by the coverage, filed a suit against the prison for mistreatment. According to his lawyers, two years ago, when he was in jail, he wrote a letter to the Justice Ministry complaining about abuse, and his jailers told him no one would listen. They were right. The ministry "officially rejected" his request for an investigation.

For years, Japan has been cited for violating prisoners' rights by the United Nations Human Rights Commission, but has done nothing. The UNHRC knows about the leather belt; and the rules about solitary confinement that force an inmate to maintain the painful seiza sitting position for days on end; and the forced labor (Japan says inmates are paid for their work, but they have no choice about whether or not to do it); and the lack of exercise time; but the Japanese people don't know about these things because, supposedly, if they did they'd feel bad about them.

But no one could believe that the media doesn't know about them, since prison watchdog groups are constantly in contact with the press. This can only mean that the media accepts the general government policy. Despite the fact that the government uses the word "corrections" (kyosei) to describe prison administration, rehabilitation has nothing to do with it. Once a person is convicted in Japan, he is essentially sent into a black hole.

Many people, and not just in Japan, believe that is how criminals should be treated. The authorities, however, are required to rise above such sentiments -- and because the Japanese authorities do not, they prefer to keep a lid on their incarceration policy. The media, whose job it is to keep the authorities in line, is therefore complicit in the human rights violations that occur daily in Japanese jails.

But even if one considers this Draconian system morally justifiable, it doesn't make sense to keep it under wraps. To paraphrase Dr. Strangelove when he heard about the Soviet "doomsday machine," the system is meaningless as long as it remains a secret. If one of the purposes of institutionalized punishment is deterrence, in other words, showing would-be criminals what's in store for them if they break the law, then mikko-shugi makes no sense.

So if neither rehabilitation nor deterrence is the function of Japanese prisons, what is? According to the UNHRC, when a person breaks society's rules, he loses his rights as a member of society, but he is still a human being with basic human rights. According to the Japanese government, once you've been judged an outcast by society, you're no longer a human being, either. No wonder they don't like to talk about it.

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