The Pathos of Politics (113-11) Japan


You weren’t free to do anything except breathe the air. ~ Toshio Oriyama, former Japanese restaurant owner and 22-year prison inmate for a wrongful murder conviction

Like the rest of the country, Japan’s prisons are strikingly safe, clean, and orderly – and as quiet as retirement homes. Yet reformers claim that Japan’s jails are among world’s cruelest for the psychological toll they take on inmates.

Eye contact with jailors is often forbidden; when permitted, it must be accompanied by a smiling demeanor. Talking is banned for much of the day; reading only sometimes allowed. The compulsory work can be mind-numbing: folding pieces of paper into 8 and unfolding them, for instance.

Solitary confinement is the penalty for a slight infraction. Death-row inmates await their demise in solitary, sometimes for many years, never knowing when they will be executed.

Ordinary Japanese are either unaware or untroubled by their penal system. The media generally portray judges’ verdicts as “the voice of heaven.” The Japanese tend to mentally put themselves in the shoes of crime victims, not suspects. There is scant civic pressure for prison reform.