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.

18 thoughts on “Japan as a model for American prison reform?”

  1. I know very little about prisons in Japan. One thing I did learn from the WSJ this year, however, is that stricter no-smoking rules mean that cigarettes are no longer the main currency in American prisons. Their report described the growth instead of a “mackerel economy”.


    Unfortunately for foreign inmates of Japanese prisons, I can’t see any real arbitrage opportunities.

  2. Currently I’m doing research on Brazillian migrant in Nagoya area and learned Kurihama penitentiary for foreign juveniles where 90% of inmates are Brazillian youth offers Japanese language lessons plus job skills such like license for forklft trucks.

    You might also want check the film 刑務所の中 directed by Sai Youichi.

  3. Mulboyne: I also read that WSJ article when it came out, and it’s just absurd enough so I hope it’s true.

    Aceface: Is that based on the manga of the same name? I recently saw the movie 休暇, which has several scenes of a prisoner on death row. Of course the life of a death row prisoner is probably totally different from that of a regular inmate.

    How does the juvenile detention center differ from adult prison?

  4. Yes,it’s based on the manga of the same name.I’m not saying the actual prison is as good as the movie portrayed,but it’s probably more accurate than Oliver Stone had had portrayed Turkish prison in “Midnight Express”….

    Juvebile detention center少年院,juvenile peniitentiary少年刑務所 has supervisor who grades the working attitude and moral recovery or much more focused on education.

  5. You might also want to check out Danny Botsman’s book on the changes in Japanese prisons and punishment ideology from Tokukgawa to Meiji, “Punishment and Power in the Making of Modern Japan”. It’s an amazing piece of social history.

  6. Keimusho no Naka is a fantastic movie. Based on an autobiographical manga and full of rich personal detail. There are some decent non-fiction works out there on prisons in Japan and they don’t contradict the movie/manga (I’d recommend that you watch the movie and read some of Hanawa’s other manga to get a taste for his style before you check out the Keimusho no Naka manga).

    I also highly recommend the manga Mori no Asagao – about death row. The life of death row prisoners is fairly different and the manga covers those differences in great (and realistic) detail – basically, they have a lot more freedom and don’t work. They do, however, have to deal with the footsteps down the hall each morning, as I know you know based on our discussion of Japan’s death penalty situation last year.

    With just the one movie and the one manga, I think that you can learn all you need to know about jails in Japan but there is more –

    Excellent documentary on Asahi two weeks ago about a high tech low security prison that uses 1/3 as many guards as normal. Japanese govt. is doing a lot of things right with its prisons (also some bad stories of abuse over the past few years, however).

    While it is old, the movie “Third” is an excellent depiction of the Shonenin environment (don’t have to rely on Ashita no Jo).

    On the US side, I have seen some things lately (not just The Wire) that make me think that the US prison system is beyond broken. This is a great series (to watch, not the quality of analysis) –


    I don’t think that the series is critical enough, but watching it goes beyond scary and we can always use our own critical skills if the directors are not doing it for us. Some of the things in this series…. at one point, guards are planning to search a minimum security lockup for contraband (some people in there for driving without a license). The first guard storms into a room with a half dozen convicts and fires a blank shotgun shell. The prisoners are scared shitless and hit the deck. They say that doing this is “pre-emptive”. Prisoners who are simply resting routinely have tasers and shotguns loaded with salt and pepper rounds pointed at them. The series is filled with casual violence and threats of violence by guards and these are people who KNOW that they are on National Geographic…. It seems like an entirely punitive hell on earth with little thought given to rehabilitation. Even the “work experience” can take the form of chain gang labor….

    I also agree 100% with David Simon that jailing addicts is not only cruel but a shocking waste of resources that could be devoted to rehab. America has 25% of the world’s incarcerated with only 5% of the population. This goes beyond crisis.

  7. Among the reasons for the perpetuation of the American prison system is the disgusting prison-based gerrymandering practice of counting inmates in a prison, often located in a rural county with a minuscule local population, as residents of that country for the purposes of electoral districting and financial resource allocation. Since inmates are not allowed to vote, this means that the locals, whose economy is largely based on the existence of the prison, have a massively disproportionate amount of political influence in the state legislature, and perhaps in Congress’s House of Representatives.

    Since in many states the inmate population is largely minority men from the city, I once saw this practice described as similar to the slavery-era practice of counting non-voting, non-civil rights having blacks as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of vote allocation, for votes which were of course exercised by the small (in those days, limited to property owners? certainly limited to men) white population. I find the comparison disturbingly apt.

    I don’t find it an exaggeration to say that the criminal justice has warped into a so-called “prison industrial complex,” a self-perpetuating system in which the political influence of the prison economy and rural districts with disproportionate amounts of power encourage the promotion of prisons and block justice reform purely for economic benefit, ignoring that they do so largely on the backs of the urban poor. And considering how lack of a stable family is one of the best predictors of falling into the petty or thuggish criminal behavior that leads to prison, continually locking up a high percentage of the young fathers in a community as their children grow up perpetuates the other end of the cycle.

    Supply and demand is boosted on both ends, with prisons on one side and prisoners on the other. I actually stopped for a moment to try and decide which is “supply” and which is “demand” and couldn’t come up with an answer.

    BTW, I have seen some of Hanawa’s other manga, and I actually have a copy of Keimusha no naka back home in the US, but I never got around to reading it.

  8. Incidentally, The Wire never really got into prisons much. He certainly showed how the prison cycle disrupts the urban community, but in the show Simon never really explored the political side of prisons, which now that I think about it actually could have been a unifying theme for a followup season, if he wanted to expand a little more outside of Baltimore.

  9. When I lived Osaka, I got the chance to visit a prison in Shiga prefecture. Although unheated, as every single english article on the Japanese prison system ever seems to stress constantly, the overall conditions seemed a lot safer than in any US prison. The inmates were shuffled along in an orderly fashion between activities, and they were kept productively employed doing work that was outsourced to the prison. Prisoners receive a (paltry) wage for their work at the termination of their sentence. In the US, prisoners aren’t actually allowed to work, resulting in large periods of inactivity.

    The most important thing to note, I believe, is that prison is seen as more of a last resort in Japan. It’s true that Japanese prosecutors wield almost total control over the justice system, without having to answer to an electorate, but in the case of Japan, this allows them to make decisions that are more merciful and ahead of the curve of popular understanding. Hence, in Japan, where prosecutors can certainly elect to toss any given subject into prison (last I checked, there is a 99.9% conviction rate where prosecutors choose to pursue a case), in a LARGE percentage of cases, the decision is made to suspend prosecution, instead directing the subject to extra-judicial systems of punishment. The goal is to avoid that harsh stigmatization, and to reintegrate the criminal, as opposed to the US model, where a prosecutor, for the sake of appeasing a bloodthirsty voting body, often seeks maximum sentences.

  10. “young fathers in a community as their children grow up perpetuates the other end of the cycle.”

    And young mothers. I read that something like 50% of the women in US prisons have children under 5.

    Seems like Simon is moving away from crime…. I’m looking forward to seeing “Generation Kill” myself. I think that he has enough to work on….

    I think that “The Wire” did a few good things with prisons – the violence and guard participation in the drug economy in Season 2. What we see of DiAngelo’s prison experience (sensitive guy trying to break free of his demons but being held back by a toxic environment). Bubbles’ white friend’s prison experience really hit the addict theme. (SPOILER) Avon’s epic final appearance and Randy’s boy’s home (which was a non-punitive institution, come to think of it) transformation also did a lot in two short scenes in Season 5. The big thing about The Wire was that it showed how the jail environments fit with the outside lifestyles – most prison films / TV are short on outside context and things like Prison Break… probably inspires as much reflection on the prison system as 24 does for the war on terror….

  11. I’ll second the recomendation for Botsman’s history of the Tokugawa-Meiji transition. I don’t have it handy (I’m in the wrong state for that) but I don’t remember American prisons being the dominant model at that point. Doesn’t mean that it wasn’t influential later, but what I know about the early 20c prison system (from personal testimonies like Reflections on the Way to the Gallows) doesn’t sound very much like the US system at all.

  12. Speaking of judicial reform, this bit of news from Taiwan is sort of interesting.

    The amendment to Article 41 stipulates that those who do not commit a “major” crime and are sentenced to a maximum of six months in prison can apply to do community service instead.

    Six hours of community service is equivalent to one day in prison under the amendment, which requires that the total number of service hours exchanged for jail time be served within a year.

    I’m fairly sure I’ve seen Botsman’s book and thought the title seemed interesting, but I’ve never looked at it. Someday.

  13. Check the J-wikipedia on 日本の刑務所



    [編集] 日本の行刑を完成した男




    ・受刑者は絶対に甘やかさない ・徹底的に取り締まる




  14. The nasty prison certainly has a presence in Japanese popular culture as well. While “Take 2” is pretty lame, the 2 1972 “Joshu Sasori” movies are “B” masterpieces. Not always easy to watch, but the second is probably Japan’s greatest post-Mizoguchi Kenji feminist film (they are “chick prison flicks”, certainly the best that the genre has ever seen). Of course, American prisons in Japanese pop culture come off looking worse….

  15. I don’t know about the last few decades, but I recently read an essay by Yoji Nakatani that seemed to attribute most of the philosophies behind criminology and penal reform post-Meiji restoration to German theories about environmental influences (urbanization, Marxism) as well as thoughts on race and the ‘decadence of youth’.

  16. On another thread, in college, I read Akira Yoshimura’s “On Parole” (too lazy to look up the Japanese title right now, but the English translation was really good), a fairly detailed fictional account of how the correctional system tries to rehabilitate people here. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but it seemed well-researched based on all the details.

  17. And some good news from California- a state which whose prison system is heavily burdened by the three strikes rule.

    Parole would be eliminated for all nonserious, nonviolent and non-sex offenders. The proposal would cut the parole population by about 65,000 by June 30, 2010, or more than half of the Christmas Eve count of 123,144.

    At the same time, the corrections plan calls for increasing good-time credits for inmates who obey the rules and complete rehabilitation programs. Combined with the new parole policies that would result in fewer violators forced back into custody, the proposal would reduce the prison population by 15,000 by June 30, 2010. It stood at 171,542 on Dec. 24.

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