Foreign prisoners in Japan often complain they suffer unfairly in jail as they cannot speak the language nor adapt to the strict discipline, but as of last Sunday some of them are able to ask to serve out their sentences in their home country.
Initially only 142 of around 4,000 convicted foreigners will be eligible to apply to be transferred to jails in their own country, but Japanese authorities hope to help reduce overcrowding in prisons here once more nations, especially in Asia, sign the 1983 Convention for the Transfer of Sentenced Persons.
The main purpose of the convention, drawn up by the Council of Europe, the 45-member intergovernmental human-rights body, is to promote the social rehabilitation of prisoners.
It is also based on humanitarian considerations, given the language difficulties and the effect of the lack of family visits for prisoners in a foreign country.
The regulations in Japanese jails are very strict, noted Wim Rijkers, first secretary of administrative and consular affairs at the embassy of the Netherlands, 15 of whose citizens are serving time in Japan.
"It is very difficult for young people from modern Europe who have been arrested to adjust themselves to the enormous discipline of Japanese jails and to go along with it," Rijkers said.
"I have seen prisons in Thailand and I would prefer to be incarcerated there than in Japan, because in Thailand they will simply put you in between four walls and that is it, they could not care less what you do," he explained.
"In Japan there are regulations for everything. If you want a book there are regulations for how many books you can have and when you can read them."
Surrounded by high walls, Fuchu prison in Tokyo is home to the largest foreign inmate population in Japan with 547 convicts from 48 countries, speaking 38 languages between them.
"There are many rules here, 10,000 rules ... it is military-like," said one American inmate who has been behind bars for more than 10 years after murdering and robbing a colleague while in Japan on business.
"You have to march to and from work, everything seems ridiculous until you get used to it," he said, seated in an interview room, dressed in a grey pajama-style uniform.
On several occasions the man in his early 50s was put into solitary confinement for breaking the rules, such as when he gave his address to someone or shouted at a guard.
The US inmate, however, said he would stay in Fuchu prison because he had broken the law in Japan and "therefore I must fulfill my obligations to this society."
"I am here because I committed a terrible crime. You cannot expect prison to be an amusement park," he said, as several guards looked on.
Fuchu's weekday routine starts with a wake-up call at 6:45am.
Inmates eat breakfast in their cells -- either group or single -- then march a couple of hundred meters to work, where they spend eight hours doing a range of manual jobs from dissecting phones for their parts to making shoes.
At 4:40pm prisoners stop work and march back to their cells for dinner. Lights out is at 9pm. Inmates may only take two or three baths a week, cigarettes and alcohol are forbidden and treats such as chocolate are rationed.
"No talking is allowed while they work in the factories, take a bath or after lights out," said Fuchu prison spokesman Masayoshi Tashiro.
"Prisoners are locked in their cells during the weekend," he said.
Human-rights groups such as Amnesty International fear serious human rights abuses take place behind the bolted doors of Japanese jails, with inmates being punished for simply looking out of a window or talking at the wrong time.
The ill-treatment and torture of inmates by Japanese prison officers was highlighted in Amnesty's 2003 report published on Wednesday.
Foreigners have a particularly tough time because of the language barrier, said Makoto Teranaka, secretary general of Amnesty International Japan, who welcomed Japan's accession to the convention.
"Punishing someone in Japan could be changed, provided the prisoner's home country is safe," he said.
Japan has been under pressure for several years to join the convention, but only signed up at the start of this year because there had not been enough prisoners in the country to warrant the work that was necessary, said Satoru Ohashi, assistant director of the security division at the Ministry of Justice.
"However the number of foreign prisoners in Japan is increasing so we decided to join," he said in an interview.
"In addition, more countries in Asia will likely become signatories which will enable a greater number of prisoners to apply to go home," Ohashi said.
The largest number of foreign prisoners in Japan comes from China and Iran, which are not among the group of 52 nations that recognize the convention.
But not all convicts from member countries will be allowed to transfer.
"There must be dual criminality ... plus the prisoner, their country and Japan need to agree on the transfer before it can take place," Ohashi said.
Most of the Dutch inmates currently serving time here and another four on trial -- if found guilty -- will be unable to move back home because they committed drug-related offences that are not illegal in the Netherlands.
Despite the limitations, selected prisoners will eventually move home, where they stand a better chance of being rehabilitated back into society, officials said.
Archived from The Taipei Times