Japan as a model for American prison reform?

The Washington Post has a very interesting article on Senator James Webb (D – VA)’s campaign to reform US criminal justice and prisons. Webb seems to be among the few senators who actually realizes how broken the US justice system is, with its obscene incarceration rate and often stiff penalties for minor violations. This is all to his credit, and I hope he succeeds in achieving some level of reform, but this is not the part of the article that caught my attention. Here it is:

Somewhere along the meandering career path that led James Webb to the U.S. Senate, he found himself in the frigid interior of a Japanese prison.

A journalist at the time, he was working on an article about Ed Arnett, an American who had spent two years in Fuchu Prison for possession of marijuana. In a January 1984 Parade magazine piece, Webb described the harsh conditions imposed on Arnett, who had frostbite and sometimes labored in solitary confinement making paper bags.


In his article about the Japanese prisons, Webb described inmates living in unheated cells and being prohibited from possessing writing materials. Arnett’s head was shaved every two weeks, and he was forbidden to look out the window.

Still, Webb said, the United States could learn from the Japanese system. In his book, “A Time to Fight,” he wrote that the Japanese focused less on retribution. Sentences were short, and inmates often left prison with marketable job skills. Ironically, he said, the system was modeled on philosophies pioneered by Americans, who he says have since lost their way on the matter.

I must admit that I know absolutely nothing about the history of prisons in Japan, and for that matter embarrassingly little about the history of prisons in the US. How much are Japanese prisons really modeled after American theories? Certainly the Japanese court system tends to give out shorter sentences for at least certain types of crime, but is there any truth to the idea that inmates leave with job skills? I could easily imagine that an ex-con in Japan is even more stigmatized in the job market than one in the US.

Adamu’s best posts of 2008

Following up Roy’s latest, I thought I would post my personal favorites from 2008:

  • 40% of Japanese blogs are spam — This wasn’t my own discovery or anything, but it was nice to see a reality check from the oft-cited “Japan is the bloggingest nation” myth.
  • The New Yushukan — Reflection on my trip to the war museum connected to Yasukuni Shrine. No pictures, but I was very pleased with the discussion it generated.
  • Why does Japan need more foreigners again? — I look at some of the recent arguments calling for calm, rational debate on Japan’s immigrant question, and conclude that Japan needs a comprehensive but conservative immigration policy.
  • No photos please, this is a press conference — I was shocked — SHOCKED! — to learn that pop stars don’t like fans taking unauthorized photos of them.
  • Japanese TV is full of dangerous frauds — I again express righteous anger at the prospect that the people on TV might not have my best interests at heart.
  • Where will all the eikaiwa teachers go? — Some tough love for all those unemployed English teachers out there. Again, if your best job prospects in Japan aside from English teaching are truck driving or electronics sales, it’s time to think about boning up your resume.

I also wrote some pieces for David Marx’s Neojaponisme project, all of which I am fairly happy with. In addition to a review of TV drama Change, I co-translated a series on the WaiWai scandal and contributed two essays to the site’s year in review, on Roppongi Hills and the lay judge system.

Though 2008 was a light year for posting, I feel like there was more substance to what I did end up writing. This year, I acquired a taste for persuasive writing (not sure how many people I persuaded…), and my experience with Neojaponisme in particular has made me a better essayist. My goals for next year are to keep up the stream of thoughts on both sites, read more books, and hopefully get a better grasp of the media industry, a topic I have really struggled to understand but will no doubt be facing new challenges during this economic recession.

Happy new year everyone!

My best posts of the year

With 2009 almost upon us, I thought I’d try riding the wave of cheesy end of year roundups. Here are my personal favorite five items I posted this year. (Adam and Joe can of course do their own.

  • Visas I have known. Scans of all the visas in my passport (key data blacked out of course) with commentary.
  • Remembering the Railway of Death. A chronicle, in words and images, of the afternoon Adam, his wife Shoko, and I spent at the oddest museum I have ever seen. As a bonus, photographs of the modern state of the nearby Railway of Death itself.
  • Mr. Chang – Mr. Oyama. Notes on a conversation I had with a dying man while passing the time outside a 7/11.
  • A visit to Lo Sheng. A travel diary, with photographic slideshow, of my visit to Taiwan’s Japan-colonial era Leprosorium. Sadly, it appears that the government has (unsurprisingly) gone back on its promise to preseve Lo Sheng and allow residents to remain. Here is some Taiwanese TV news footage of the police breaking up a protest outside. You can see my friend Em being dragged away at exactly 1:00.
  • Tamogami, Motoya, and Abe.  An easy selection for my best post of the year. Also see Tamogami Update and Still More on Tamogami.

Any disagreements? Was there anything else I should replace one of these five with?

IIjima Ai’s meaning to Taiwan

The mysterious death of former porn-star turned memoir author and TV celebrity IIjima Ai has been big news in Japan. I wouldn’t normally mention something like this due to lack of really caring much, but I was alerted to a rather interesting twist in a comment by Taiwanese TV Journalist Michella Jade Weng at Michael Turton’s blog. Weng linked to an a Mainichi article explaining that IIjima’s death has been unusually big news in Taiwan for a surprising and fascinating reason. I’ll give a translation of most of the article below.

Due to the import of adult videos starring Ms. IIjima in the early 90s when Taiwan was democratization and the opening of society were proceeding, Ms. Iijima became a “symbol” of freedom of expression and culture. The [December] 25th edition of China Times, one of Taiwan’s big four newspapers, had a front page article above the fold article which, along with showing a photograph of Ms. Iijima, stated that Iijima Ai “became the common shared sexual dream of Taiwanese men born in the 1960s to 1970s.”

Note that China Times now has a special feature section on their website, under the amusing folder name of “sexgirl.” UDN, another of the big four papers, also put together a special feature on Ms. Iijima, describing her as “a memory of all the men of Asia.”

Assistant Editor of China Times, Zhang Jing-wei, explained this treatment by saying “The period when Ms. Iijima was active overlapped with the period when Taiwanese politics and society were opened up. We were not trying to be funny at all, and decided that Ms. Iijima’s death has social significance.”

In 1987, Taiwan’s 38 year period of marital law ended, and restrictions on cultural expression such as newspaper publication and songs were lifted. The Japanese adult videos that began pouring into Taiwan in the 1990s were considered a symbol of social liberalization.

Weng also reports that her editor explained it in more direct terms. “In addition, she was the common link between nearly all men born in the 60’s and 70’s, because almost all of them hid in their bedroom and watched her videos at one point or another.” Including her editor.

The Himeji Monorail

I just learned of the existence of the Himeji Monorail, from my housemates who spotted it today when walking around after a castle visit. Japanese Wikipedia has a decent article on it. It opened in 1966, but shut down in 1974. While it was a novelty, it was so expensive that “two people could ride the bus and have change left over” for the same money, on top of fulfilling no practical need in a small city with a decent bus system and low traffic density. After the novelty factor wore off, ridership declined precipitously and it was left running in the red. The final nail in the common was the withdrawal of Lockheed, who had manufactured the system, from the monorail industry. This made further maintenance impractical, particulalry for a money-bleeding system. After years of “suspended” service, it was officially decomissioned in 1979, but most of the ruins survive.

The car depot/terminal station, which still has all the original cars in it, is currently closed to the general public but is scheduled to be converted into a museum by 2011.

This Japanese page has a bit more info on it, but this one has an excellent collection of images, including original tickets.

Inventing Xmas

Christmas is over but “the holidays” continue.

As you recover from over-eating, you might enjoy reading about how America’s modern Christmas traditions were born. About.com has a concise guide. One interesting tidbit on the first depiction of the modern Santa:

Santa’s suit features the stars and stripes of the American flag, and he’s distributing Christmas packages to the soldiers. One soldier is holding up a new pair of socks, which might be a boring present today, but would have been a highly prized item in the Army of the Potomac.

Beneath Nast’s illustration was the caption, “Santa Claus In Camp.” Appearing not long after the carnage at Antietam and Fredericksburg, the magazine cover is an apparent attempt to boost morale in a dark time.

If you saw the Colbert Christmas Special, you might remember Toby Keith singing “Santa Claus and Uncle Sam are one and the same.” I guess there was more truth to that than is widely recognized!

Burying the lede?

The NYT has a new article explaining in a decent length how currency-finagling led to a codependent financial relationship between China and the US over the last few years. Yes, that’s all very informative, but as is often the case they slip the best part in towards the end, where most readers will have already given up.

In a glassed-in room in a nondescript office building in Washington, the Treasury conducts nearly daily auctions of billions of dollars’ worth of government bonds. An old Army helmet sits on a shelf: as a lark, Treasury officials have been known to strap it on while they monitor incoming bids.

With a line like that, it’s criminal that the photograph for the article was Secretary Paulson and President Hu wearing boring suits.

Best poll ever?

Friday, December 26, 2008
Teens Skipping Breakfast Tend To Have Sex Earlier In Life: Poll
TOKYO (Kyodo)–A recent national poll of around 1,500 people has shown that those who skipped breakfast in their early teens first had sexual intercourse at an average age of 17.5 years, earlier than 19.4 for those who had breakfast every day and an average 19 for all those polled, according to a health ministry study panel.