Prison in Japan: Part 2 “The Beginning”

Gaijin in Japanese JailThis is the second part of a gaijin in Japan’s (George’s) experience in a Japanese Ryuchijyo (留置場, Prison for people that haven’t yet been convicted of any crime). For better understanding of the background of his story, read Prison in Japan: Part 1 before reading the continuation below. The following was published directly out of George’s journal that he meticulously wrote while he was in Prison in Tokyo (only some tenses have been changed for continuity of reading, along with place names that may risk George’s anonymity).

From here, is part two of the series – George’s account of “The Beginning”:
My time in the detention center started on the evening of September 1 2006, just two days after my 36th birthday. The day I turned myself in started well, although I was still very anxious with regret for what had I had done and probably still anxious from the amount of alcohol consumed on my birthday, 2 nights before. My wife whom I had consulted with about my dilemma the night before made me a small but nice breakfast of eggs and fruit bread. I left early on my motorbike to settle the mater of updating my gaijin card and finished up at the kuyaksho (City Hall) at around 9:30am. Immediately after arriving home I took our youngest boy to his grandparents home just across from the station and my wife drove me to the *location withheld* Police Station. With my oldest boy having already gone off to kindergarten, we arrived at the station at around 10am. From there my day went badly, worse than I could have possibly imagined.

After a fairly short while it was verified that a complaint had been lodged at the Shirakawa Police Station (in Kotoku, Tokyo) over an incident that had occurred in the early hours of Thursday morning, August 31st. Around 4am. It had never occurred to my wife or I that simply going to the Police with an envelope of money and a strong apology to the complainant would not be enough to settle the matter, but it quickly dawned upon me how much trouble I was in. My wife had to leave at around midday to look after the kids and at around 12:30 I was driven in a secure car (meaning one that I could not get out of) to the Shirakawa Police Station. The first person there was not at all in a friendly mood. A young detective acted as a weak translator and my interrogation began at around 1pm. It did not stop until I was officially arrested and I had signed my own arrest warrant at 10:12pm.

Through that day the detective in charge (hereinafter the “DIC”) concentrated on getting me to agree to things that were (to me) patently untrue. I attacked the driver. I was living on the breadline, struggling to feed my wife and 2 kids. It had complained the taxi fare was too expensive and refused to pay. I acted violently and stole the taxi drivers money, phone and pushed him to the ground causing a serious head injury, before fleeing from the scene. From the outset of the interrogation I had come to realize that my version of the events was clearly different from the taxi drivers. I hadn’t at all contemplated another version of the truth until then. What a naive bastard. Nor had my wife or mother in law whom I had consulted and both of whom were expecting me home. We just assumed that my truth was the right and only “truth”. This put me in a fairly scared and even more anxious state throughout the day as I tried to stop the DIC from entering his own version of events into the record and getting him via my fairly average Japanese and my not so helpful translator to put the truth as I saw it on record.

This took a remarkably long time as the DIC seemed disinterested in hearing my side of the story. He continued to misinterpret the facts and it was 10pm before we finally had a fairly good record that covered both my “motive” (if you could call it that) and the events as I remembered them that lead up to the result: a bloodied taxi driver who had not been paid his fare and whose mobile phone had been taken from him. We both agreed that taking someone’s mobile phone was theft. I agreed with the results and this was why I had gone to the *location withheld* Police Station that morning: to pay amends and find a kind a settlement to say sorry.

Inside a Japanese Ryuchijyo (Prison)After a grueling day mentally and verbally jousting with the DIC I entered cell #6, which would become my home for the next 22 days. Walking through the cellblock seeing each cell with 3 or 4 men lying on their futons, I had a strange feeling like I was in a movie. As I entered my cell I briefly caught the eye of a bulky looking Japanese man (who the next day I immediately recognized as non-threatening) and also another man who the next day I would find out was in fact Chinese. He also seemed okay based on the half-second eye contact we had. The day of anxiety finally ended when I closed my eyes and drifted into a deep sleep in my 10 foot by 15 foot cell with two other “suspects” of other crimes, exhausted and happy to have a futon to give me comfort. I laid my futon out near the door as I didn’t want to intrude and I slept remarkably well despite the stress and despite the lack of food other than a horrid cold bento at 10:20pm, and after my signature and fingerprint was logged on my official statement. I was entered into the detention center as inmate number 14 and handed a pair of slippers with my number neatly stenciled on top.

Day two started with a basic wash and shy hello to my cellmates. I followed the actions of the other cellmates and also quickly realized the bulky one was definitely a friendly guy, as was the Chinaman who I realized could not speak very much Japanese. This was the first day of “the rituals”. The rituals included how to fold your futon, how to kneel at the “tenken” (headcount), how to prepare your meal mats, the speed with which we ate, the way to return your bowls and bento trays, the order for cleaning the room and so on.

As most of the inmates were sleeping when I had come in and only a few were still out when I had been washing, there was a buzz that circulated as I (a 190cm tall, 90+kg westerner) walked out past the cells to return my futon to the cupboards. I could hear the words “Amerikajin” and “dekai” (tall/big) as I passed them going back to my cell. An uppity and quite skinny young guy was jumping excitedly saying “konnichiwa” and eyeballing me like a freak. Another 2-3 tough looking guys just gave me a nod or a slight raise of their brows as their way of saying hello. It was all quite weird but it was kind of cool to be given some positive (or at least, not negative) attention as compared to the DIC and his mediocre translator who didn’t show me any love at all.

A crappy bento breakfast was followed by the offer of a cigarette (declined) and shaving session – that they liked to call “undo” (exercise). Standing on a caged balcony with 4-5 other inmates and 2-3 guards, I took the chance to stretch while the guards quizzed me on who I was. They asked a lot of questions but never breached the question of how I got there. This continued over the next few days as guards and inmates alike would quiz me on my home country and my background, giving me a happy sense that all was not so bad. In fact the people were genuinely being very nice. I was being told how big and strong I must be and how my home country is so wonderful and all the usual compliments that Japanese give when they meet a gaijin for the first time, and it appeared to me that a foreigner of western origin must be a rarity in the prison system of Japan. I repeated the same conversations about my home country, sports, family and my time in Japan with the changing of the guards and whenever I had the chance to “meet” other inmates over our ‘exercise’, wash or bath or, over the first few days, any moment I happened to pass some of their cells.

My main cellmate was a nice fellow from Kyushu named Wajima-san. He was short and stocky, in fact quite fat with a spare tire and a half neatly set around his mid-section. He kept to himself a lot but made sure we got things done in proper order and in timely fashion. Aged 35, he was living in Tokyo after moving from Kyushu some years ago and was in the system for the first time. True or false I don’t know but I’d guess this was for real. His charge was robbery, which he quite readily admitted. He saw an opportunity to make some money and he took it. ¥1 million worth of Nintendo game software was sitting in the warehouse in which he worked and he figured that they needed to be sold. He pocketed around ¥300k but within a few days it was fairly obvious to his bosses that he had done it. In fact not long after he had started making sales to shops in Akihabara, he had some sort of accident on his bicycle and jarred his back. He could not go to work for a week and was laid up in hospital when his boss decided to check his locker at work where, low and behold, lay a stack of gaming software that he hadn’t yet been able to take home. That was some 19 days before I met him and the poor guy had no money to even to buy his bento for lunch (¥500 per day) and he ate the two white bread rolls, with margarine, jam or chocolate spread from plastic sachets every single day for lunch. Not to forget the small bowl of hot water that made the meal complete. When the guards weren’t watching I sometimes offered him parts of my bento but he never once took it. It was of course, against the rules and we could have both get in trouble if caught. There was to be no sharing of anything between inmates. This was due to the potential for bullying, gambling and entrepreneurial commerce. I didn’t want to get him in trouble so I eventually gave up the frequency of the offers.

With no money to even pay for his lunch, when poor Wajima had finished his detention period, he of course did not have money to pay fines and was forced to remain in the detention cells until some time well after I got out, as the courts were apparently full. Last I heard they had scheduled him for a court hearing sometime in October, a full two months after he got in.

The Chinaman was none to clever but was also a person with a good heart. His was predictably a visa violator as he had been working and living in Japan for several years with no visa. He had actually disposed of his passport as soon as his temporary visa had expired, meaning it was going to be a while in the “system” before he caught a one-way flight back to China. On my first morning it was a bit of a shock as the Chinaman had a heart attack of sorts. It was hard to tell if it was for real but eventually the guards fetched his medicine for him and fed him some pills as he rolled about on the floor around the door of the cell. Wajima and I were temporarily transferred to cell 4 where the hyperactive young guy was jumping around at the excitement and the Chinaman was carried off to hospital. The hyper kid whom I nicknamed “noisy” and his scary looking shaved head friend had thought it was me that was having the heart attack. I realized Noisy and Scary were also Chinese as they gave words of encouragement to the Chinaman as he was taken away. Noisy kept bouncing from wall to wall of the cell as he struggled to calm down. Scary just sat there with his shaven head looking scarily at the floor, a broken toe bent out into the air pointing directly at me. They started to quiz me on who I was as we had not yet been introduced. They also quizzed Wajima on the Chinaman’s ailment, which they judged predictably enough was a “weak heart”. On one other occasion before I got there he had had a seizure and it seemed there was a real risk of death if he didn’t get his pills in time. My Chinese friend had already been in detention for 3 months and was in for the long haul.

It turned out that there were at least 6 or 7 Chinese in the cells and Noisy was the noisiest of them all. There were times it felt like we were in Hong Kong with all the chatter between the cells in a foreign language. I smiled wryly as I recalled the newspapers talking up crime by foreigners but my experiences so far were confirming the stereotypes. (Even on the first day as my wife and I waited for confirmation that a complaint had been filed, there was an altercation between some African pimp, and Pakistani or Iranian or middle-eastern guy and a very skanky looking eastern European fellow. Then there was just me, with no one else in the station other than cops and my wife at that time).

Anyway, eventually as the excitement of the near death Chinaman quieted down, Wajima and I were returned to our cells and then I was then hauled away for further questioning.

Just prior to the Chinaman being moved to a detention facility at the immigration center another roommate arrived. This was on Day 4. The new guy looked like a typical tough guy in the working class world. Quite a cool feel to him, a workingman tan, a goatee and a shockingly unfashionable super-baggy pair of suit pants with a matching jacket of a drab gray pinstripe nature. The type you see creeps wearing outside the sleaziest hostess clubs as they tout for loser punters. Clearly my first guess was that Hakamada had been arrested outside some shit hole clubs in the world of mizushobai. It turned out he was in the construction business. More correctly “destruction” business as his day job was tearing down old buildings with his digger and work crews. His night job seemed to be destroying his fragile home life by getting in drunken brawls and subsequently being arrested.

Again, I really quite liked this guy, as he was just so extremely positive about life. He had a genuine friendly nature and easy way of talking as if we were old friends, but I did get the sense that if he were not on your “side” you might not feel the same way. Anyway as he never got drunk nor attacked me, I liked the guy. From the start he was actually quite courteous. He entered our cell, promptly got down on his knees, bowed his head to the floor and introduced himself as Hakamada with a yorohsiku onegaishimasu to follow. I got the feeling he was a well-meaning person with such a humble introduction. I soon learned after chatting that this was in fact his 14th time to do the exact same thing. The last time being a 10-month stint in a “real prison” for the same reason as this time – violence. Basically he was a brawler who you could tell that he liked his women and booze, and that he would never back down from anyone or anything. Rather than being more courteous than the rest of us with that fancy introduction, he was just vastly more experienced!

Being a fairly good-looking fellow, our new friend Hakamada clearly did well with the ladies. He had spent some time destroying buildings in Taipei and had a Chinese girlfriend coming to visit him all the way from Taiwan in October. She would have probably needed to change those plans as I got the feeling that Hakamada would not be processed for a long time. I felt a very small tinge of pity for the poor girl but not as much as for his wife, and 2 ex-wives who were coping with his 7 kids. In fact his current wife had been the one who called the cops on him with an accusation of domestic violence (and, not for the first time). She was not going to make amends, until she realized that they had also investigated him for some unpaid fines, and also stung him for a yakuza related crime and kept him detained. Apparently she had set him up a couple of times and the guards all liked him, as he was not really beating his wife. Rather, she just wanted him out of the house. True or not, I’ll never know, but as a cellmate the guy was great. He laughed, like we all did, about our individual predicaments and he had a real spark for life.

Editor’s note: Once again, thanks to George for letting us publish his private journal. It is a colourful account of what he went through, giving us a glimpse of a world, which most hope never to see.

If you have any comments about George’s story, or any of your own experiences, feel free to leave a comment below. Come back soon for part three!

Update: Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9 and Part 10 of the “Prison in Japan” series are now available.

51 thoughts on “Prison in Japan: Part 2 “The Beginning””

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