Doing time at Fuchu: Rare inside view of Japanese prison shows life tough, tidy, disciplined


TOKYO, Japan -- The occupant of the cramped but surreally bright and tidy room presumably was American -- a well-thumbed New York Times magazine sat on the meticulously made bed awaiting his return from work.

And he would return before dusk -- to do time in Japan's largest jail house, Fuchu Prison.


The furnishings of the 6 by 11-foot cell are spartan -- one bed and a small writing table -- and the cubicle's sparkling, clean yellow walls give it the air of a cheap but well-kept hotel.

Just an hour's ride from the heart of Tokyo, sprawling Fuchu prison houses the country's most hardened criminals: murderers, drug peddlers and rapists.

It also is the only penitentiary in Japan specifically designed to house foreigners who fall on the wrong side of the law.

Japan's prisons traditionally are closed to public view, but a spate of recent scandals forced the Justice Ministry into relaxing its iron rules on prison visits.

'We want to show the world that the life of a prisoner here isn't all that bleak,' Kiyoshi Taru, the warden of Fuchu, told UPI during an exclusive tour inside the prison walls.

Surrounded by a 16-foot-high concrete fence, the entrance to the 42-acre compound is guarded by two uniformed but unarmed prison wardens.


A couple of watch towers soar over the walls, but none of the 412 guards and wardens, who handle some 2,500 male inmates, wear guns. Yet prison breaks or riots are practically unheard of at Fuchu or at the country's 58 other jails.

It can be difficult to tell guards from inmates. Both wear the same sort of uniforms, and caps hide the prisoners' crew-cut hair. The only real distinction is the color of the uniforms -- brown for inmates and dark green for the wardens.

Instead of having serial numbers emblazoned on their shirts, prisoners in Japan wear small name plates pinned to their breast pockets, just like those worn by most Japanese workers.

Taru, who has spent 37 years working in prisons, said Japan's penal system is aimed at eventual rehabilitation of convicts.

'It is not our job to punish or to humiliate the prisoners,' he said. 'They are here because they have broken the rules of society. They are here to learn discipline.'

At Fuchu, discipline is tough.

Inmates are forbidden to unbutton their prison uniforms no matter how hot it may be. No graffiti is allowed on the walls.

The smallest infraction of the rules makes a prisoner liable to discipline ranging from the withdrawal of mail privileges to what prison authorities euphemistically call 'penitence sessions.'


Inmates who seriously misbehave may be locked up in isolation cells for several weeks to 'reflect on their mistakes,' according to a senior Fuchu official.

Several recent prisoner 'mistakes' led to the scandals that forced officials to open the jail to the press.

A couple of months ago, one ex-convict with gangster links was found to have secretly manufactured two handguns in the machine workshop at a prison in southern Japan. The incident, which brought a formal apology from the Justice Minister to the Japanese parliament, was followed by allegations that drugs are routinely smuggled inside the jails.

At Fuchu prison, a supervisor was nearly hacked to death by an inmate allegedly unhappy about work rules.

The rehabilitation track record of Japanese prisons is nothing to brag about either. Some 53 percent of those jailed last year were 'repeaters,' according to Justice Ministry statistics.

Prison officials also admit that Japanese inmates are not as meek as they might wish.

'Ours is a shame culture with a highly structured homogeneous society,' Taru said.

'Once they are locked up, our people tend to obey orders from their guards. But these days, the inmates also tend to insist more on their rights than their duties.'


Prisoner duties, apart from what prison officials call 'obedience and good behavior,' include 44 hours of compulsory labor each week. At Fuchu, prisoners can choose from 21 workshops providing apprenticeships in such trades as auto mechanics, leather work and carpentry.

Most Japanese inmates share communal rooms with up to 11 other prisoners, and sleep on matted floors. Each communal cell is equipped with a small black-and-white TV set, flicked on by remote control for two hours after dinner.

Each inmate is allowed up to 10 books in his cell. But no pornography, said a jail warden, or anything the prison censors feel might 'excite' the prisoners.

Foreigners are locked up in single cells in a special section reserved for aliens, and sleep on beds.

There are no TVs in the single cells but radio speakers broadcast programs recorded from the American Military Forces Far East network.

Meals, too, set foreigners apart. But as the Japanese, as a people, do not distinguish one foreign national from another, prison officials at Fuchu also lump them together and feed all the same 'foreigners' meal.'

At last count, there were eight Americans, nine Chinese, six Taiwanese, five Filipinos, one Briton, one Thai, one Chilean and an Argentine serving time at Fuchu. All eat bread and use forks and spoons.


'Do the Chinese complain of not having rice? Certainly not,' said Seitei Okumura, the Fuchu officer in charge of education and welfare. 'Why should they? The meal served foreigners is much better.'

Apart from a bread roll and a pat of margarine, the 'foreigners' meal' that day consisted of two pieces of fried bacon and pork plus vegetable salad and an apple.

For Japanese inmates, the meal was a shade less wholesome: a small plate of tofu-mixed pork, pickles and rice mixed with barley -- something detested by most Japanese.

'It is no joke. There have been cases where some Japanese born outside the country insist they be treated as foreigners in our jail,' Okumura said.

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