Prison Conditions in Japan under Scrutiny
John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)
Japan's status as a civilized country is coming under increasing scrutiny in Europe after recent revelations that one inmate has died and another seriously injured in Nagoya Prison after being abused and bound by leather cuffs. The death, which occurred on 27 May was veiled in secrecy and gained little publicity. However, when it became known that five wardens at the same prison had been arrested on 8 November for allegedly abusing a second inmate and inflicting the prisoner with severe injuries in September, international attention turned to the case. Just yesterday (20 November), the London based human rights group, Amnesty International, issued an international press release demanding an open and thorough investigation into the matter and called on the Japanese government to bring a halt to abuses in prisons.
The case is particularly pertinent as the United Nations General Assembly debates a measure to enforce the 1989 U.N. treaty on torture which will allow the international monitoring of prisons to prevent torture. While the majority of European countries back the enforcement, Japan along with the U.S. have opposed the implementation of monitoring mechanisms, preferring to keep their practices in prisons secretive.
Nevertheless, through the work of human rights organizations, concerned media and citizens groups more is becoming known in Europe about the ill-treatment of prisoners in Japan reinforcing Japan's image as a nation that shows little respect for human rights.
Although Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama insists that she has "not heard of any similar cases at other prisons", Amnesty International in cooperation with several Japanese NPO's have documented that Nagoya Prison has increased its use of leather hand-cuffs for inflicting punishments from 53 cases last year to 148 this year (Press Release November 20). The hand-cuffs are designed to cause pain and have been described as a "medieval instrument of torture" by human rights organizations. According to a Japanese NPO, the Kango Jinken Center (Center for Prisoner's Rights), another prisoner died in Nagoya Prison the year before and between 1998 - 2002 a total of 3 inmates died as a result of abuse and leather hand-cuffs in various prisons throughout Japan (Kango Jinken Center, Press Release, 31 October 2002).
Recognizing the wide-spread nature of abuse in Japanese prisons, the Associated Press took up the issue on 13 November publicizing allegations that document severe and inhuman treatment. According to the article written by Kenji Hall, prison rules even dictate when inmates can talk or look around, and in what position they can sleep. They are banned from exercising in their cells or smoking and are subjected to regular strip searchers (Kenji Hall, AP, 13 November).
Not only is abuse seemingly widespread and severe, but very little information is released regarding such cases. Crimes of torture against inmates are often kept a secret, sending the message that the Japanese government, the Ministry of Justice and law enforcement in Japan are not interested in promoting human rights.
As a signatory to international conventions against torture and to the "Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners", Japan is obligated to ensure that the rights of all prisoners and detainees are protected. However, Japanese authorities are not acting according to international human rights standards.
As one of the leading powers in international politics, Japan is required to act responsibly both domestically and internationally. Furthermore, with its public anguished by the cases of the abducted Japanese by North Korea, the Japanese government should be stressing the importance of protecting human rights more than ever. Human rights abuses, whether they involve abductions or torture should be guaranteed for everyone without exception. The issue of human rights has plagued Japan ever since the conclusion of the Pacific War and it will continue to be an issue as Japan struggles to maintain its leadership position in Asia. Nevertheless, recognizing the fact that China will continue to gain in economic, political and military power to the point of eclipsing Japan, this island nation has the opportunity to increase its international prestige by improving its human rights record and thereby transforming itself into a beacon for human rights in the region. Whether Japan can do so is largely dependent on the level of commitment its government and citizens have towards their obligations under international and domestic laws guaranteeing human rights. As a first step, Japan should increase prison transparency and allow international monitoring to prevent ill-treatment and promote a truly safe and law-abiding society.
- Amnesty International Press Release, "Japan: prison abuses must stop", 20 November 2002
- Kenji Hall, "Japan's prisons under fire after arrests of wardens for alleged abuse", 13 November 2002