Prison in Japan: Part 6 “The Guards”

Japanese Prison GuardsThis is stippy’s sixth part in a series (see also parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) about one foreigner’s experience of being put in a Japanese prison (留置場 or “ryuchijyo”, a prison for locking up people for as long as 23 days until they are convicted, or cleared of a crime).

Below is the continuation of George’s story, and how he got along with some of the prison guards in the ryuchijyo. What is most interesting is how human the guards were for George, compared with the detectives, who seemed unnecessarily harsh in their treatment. For context, you should read the first, second, third, fourth and fifth parts of this series before continuing on with this sixth installment of George’s jail journal. Enjoy “The Guards”. From here, is taken straight from his journal (All names of people have been changed at George’s request):

The guards were all very nice guys. There was one who I took an immediate disliking to early on but we patched up our relationship and from then he was a friend. He was the one I called Fatman. He was of course fat. He was also very big and obviously very powerfully built, almost my height but a good 30kgs heavier. Our first interaction came on the 3rd or 4th day. I had been through a rough day down in Kasumigaseki and it was time for our wash at the basins and to get ready for bed. I needed a good wash as my hair and skin were greasy and I was getting acne on my chin. As I usually did at that stage, I would soap my face, neck and as much of my hair as I could without it being too obvious. This time I did it more than usual and I had a quick “Oi ju-yon ban! Dame dayo!” shouted at me from right behind. I turned and saw this new fat oaf of a guard peering at me through his thick circular glasses. I immediately detested this guy as most of the other guards had given me (and others) some room to wash liberally and I had not seen this jerky before. The other guards in fact stepped in and muttered under their breath to Fatman to let me away with it, saying that I was only washing my face, which clearly I wasn’t. I lost it somewhat and muttered under my breath “yeah, yeah laugh it up fat fuck”, which was pretty immature of me but I assumed he couldn’t understand. When I returned to my cell, Hakamada told me to calm down and that Fatman was actually a really good guy. Pffft. Whatever, I thought. He reassured me that he was.

I hated Fatman even more as I found myself waking up at 4am and having the sound of his squeaking boots patrolling up and down the hallway. The sound seemed to grow bigger by the minute and, once awake, there was simply just no going back to sleep once the cars took to the streets. That afternoon during book and manga changing time, Fatman was there. I walked up and he was standing by the case sizing me up. I didn’t quite know what he was up to but he started to remark (as many Japanese do when they meet tall foreigners) how strong I must be. I didn’t really respond but next thing he was challenging me to an arm wrestle on the bookcase, in full view of most of the inmates. Being lanky I am not the best at arm wrestling and there really was no way out. I figured, even if I lost it would be fine as he would get one up on me and maybe he would then back off a little. Of course, Noisy and a bunch of others got wind of the challenge and a buzz went through the cellblock. It was all over in a flash and Fatman toyed with me for a few seconds then slammed my arm into the wood. Damn he was strong. In my own mind I immediately tried to justify my loss by the fact that I was malnourished and hadn’t moved for days on end, being totally weak. But the fact was, as I knew, that he would have whipped my ass any time in any arm wrestle. One of the other guards came up laughing and told me that Fatman was in fact the Police Judo champion. I could imagine the guy as a Sumo champ but not doing twists and wrestling moves of Judoka. Anyway, he won and our relationship blossomed. Fatman (and I couldn’t think of any other name for him other than Jolly) was in fact a good guy. A strict guy but also a nice fellow who looked after his favourite inmates. He looked after Hakamada and started to look after me by allowing me to exchange books at any time of the day. I assumed he did this for a lot of people but it was still nice.

Japanese Prison GuardThere were other guards who I liked also. In fact there was no guard that I did not like. A middle aged, softly spoken guy with a handsome and kind sort of face was great. He was the duty guard during his shifts but he was extremely shy and never really participated in the banter with the other guards. But his behaviour to all the inmates was kind and caring. One skinny old guy aged around 50 was also great. He was “Happy”, full of energy and was obviously not the smartest of the guards but he was also a very friendly guy who asked me so many questions about my home country and kept telling me how much he dreamed of going there. Of course he had only ever been to Guam once many years before, but he seemed so well motivated by the potential to go overseas to retire. He was great. He was usually on duty with Bull, the tall chiseled faced guard who was more senior and looked somewhat like Bull from Night Court back in the ‘80’s. He was also a happy man who genuinely cared about his wards. It was funny how all the guards would engage in conversation with inmates but when it came to me or one or two of the Chinese guys during “exercise” they would let Happy do the talking and just nod in affirmation or occasionally object to some comment. Happy loved his role of being the socialite. They were all nice. There was one Chinese guy, only around 24 or 25 who seemed to be on incredibly good terms with all of the guards. He was a nice kid who seemed genuinely smarter than anyone else in the Detention Center. I thought he must have a University education but it was hard to tell for any of us when we are in a prison facility. I also found myself “toughing up” in posture when I was with the hard men, and as time went on and the faces around me changed with some “shinjin”, I found myself strangely proud to be one of the old faces having gone beyond my first two weeks. I could easily imagine that it would be easy to become a career crim and take pride in your prison term, like the hard men in the movies. It really felt a bit like that – even though I was only in there for a lame crime and it was only for a short period of my life overall, even if it went to a few months.

After my first 5-6 days new guard shifts would come on that I had not seen before. I think they may have been on during the night shift early on but as I had already started my relationship with the other guards and was a known figure, they never tried to talk to me. If they ever had to talk to me they always called me by my real name. During “processing” when I came in on that Friday night, the rules were explained that I could not be addressed by your name and I would from that moment on be addressed as “ju-yon-ban”, prisoner 14. I thought that was kind of funky at the time as it all seemed so strange. Within the first 24 hours though I found the guards calling me by my real family name, as they did with most of the guys who were not introverts. Hakamada, being the kind of guy he was, was on great terms with all the guards. He had been there before, which probably helped, but he also had a charm that worked its way on people. There was no doubt that if I was in for the long haul, say a year or more, being Hakamada’s friend would be a huge benefit. Guards liked him and with his enthusiastic manner people were guaranteed to end up in his debt at some point. He was always asking questions and figuring out how things worked and how he could help someone in some way. He was great. He spent a lot of time trying to convince me to go into business with him in future. He also spent a lot of time trying to figure out how he would make his next income. I was told a few crafty ideas and it quickly dawned on me how the Detention Center (and no doubt the prison system as a whole) was a breeding ground for future crimes against society. Whether they were insurance scams, gambling scams or blatant robberies, the guys in my Detention Center discussed it all with quieted voices. I loved it as it made me smile every night to hear the plotting going on after lights out. My one over-riding impression of all the guards was that they were all genuinely good human beings. They were not the bad-ass guys that I thought they would be at all and they had a true compassion for the people they were there to look after.

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

17 thoughts on “Prison in Japan: Part 6 “The Guards””

  1. It is strange how the guards are different from the cops. Perhaps it’s because as they interact with the prisoners they can see that they’re still human, just on the other side of the bars…

  2. Seeing each other on a daily basis what are you going to do, try to get along so everyone can have less stress and no one flips out. Helps in all environments.

  3. Actually Max, I have a brother in a prison in a western country. He tells me that the guards are absolute arseholes no matter how hard he tries to get along with them. Obviously he doesn’t say this on the phone or in letters, but tells me in private when I go to visit. It appears that his guards are dropouts who couldn’t get jobs as “real police”, and hence became prison staff so that at least they can be powerful and have total control over hopeless prisoners. Pretty sick actually. I even find that when I go there, they are total loosers, and they are the sort of people that you would have no problem with saying, “dude, you are a complete tosser” to their face – as most of them are fat or skinny runts. The most frustrating thing is that I have to be nice to them, as if I show my contempt for them or their disgusting behaviour, they could take it out on my bro, and he doesn’t need that. So, good on the Japanese prison guards for being more human than their job description demands!

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  5. There’s a jail in my hometown (US). When the state was trying to convince people that having a jail wouldn’t lead to an increase in crime, they pointed out that all the criminals were IN the jail. They forgot to mention that the guards were outside of it (for the time being).

    Really, they are subhuman thugs. Awful, useless people. And I mean that, as mean as it sounds.

  6. This is well written and for someone who was getting a raw deal, not terribly biased. It’s good insight to a system we have little knowledge about.

  7. Hello Max.

    I’ve been in Japan Prisons (Narita Airport, Chiba and Tokyo inmigration) for 2 and a half months, after they found 3 gr. of Marihuana on my suitcase. Obviously it was self consume but Japanese law don’t make distinctions, they judged me the same way I had a kilo of it.

    I got 1.5 years of hard-work prison sentence (for 3 gr.) but, being the first time, i got deported to my country and can’t go back to Japan. Never. I’m disgusted, I’ve been there 3 times before and i loved that country.

    They knew from the beginning what was my fault, there was no possible investigation as I admitted my “crime”. Even that they made me spend those 23 days of “ryuchijyo” before presenting the charges. Some unfair extra punishment.

    I thought prison was like movies: with people walking around, a big patio, a cantina, books and some things to do. Not in Japan. Maybe i wasn’t afraid for my integrity, guards where fine, i got food and didn’t found bad cellmates. Even that they go for your head, making me stay all 2.5 months closed, just going out 10 minutes a day, on a 5×1.5 m empty room. So many time to think, no books, no pen, no paper. I almost went crazy.

    I went there for holidays and ended up having the worst experience of my life. Now, 2 years after, i also think that i learned many things, seeing with my eyes how Japanese goverment take care of illegal inmigration and how lucky being 1rst world citizen am I.

    Be careful with Japanese justice, i hope this post can serve as an advice.

  8. You brought marijuana into an Asian country (well known for being very strict with drugs) and you’re complaining about the legal system? You say that you had been here before, so it’s not even as if you had ignorance for an excuse; I don’t support strict drug laws, but you really brought this upon yourself.

    Also, for the record, Japan is a first world country.

  9. That was an incredibly interesting story. Thanks for presenting a picture of a situation most people would otherwise never know. I’m curious about what happened in the end and what your departure from the ryuchijyo was like.

    oRc, it looks like the system works just as intended. You knowingly violated the law, they jailed you for it, holding you in the ryuchijyo for the maximum period possible to give you a taste of what your sentence could’ve been, then sent you the hell away. You now help them do their work by spreading the word and helping them keep the drugs out. Your opinion of their drug laws is meaningless. Their country, their rules. And you kowingly broke ‘em.

    And as Rick wrote, Japan is most certainly a first-world country. Had you been caught in a second- or third-world country you could’ve been summarily executed.

  10. Rick,

    I guess what ORC means is not that Japan is 3rd world but that being a 1st world citizen he didn’t get so badly treated as someone from a 3rd world country

  11. As a Prison officer in the UK – we really don’t have it in for the prisoners, we are too busy and there are far too many of them. Prisons are run by good will from both officers and prisoners!

  12. It’s been 4 years now since i finished my prison term for 2 and a half years in japan. Judging from the name i gave here was my prison and prison number. Boy, the stories you mentioned here brought back a lot of memories… natsukashi desu ne. I was imprisoned for smuggling in plastic cards for the use of fake credit cards. Usually people would get deported but they decided to make me the first example of a harsher sentence. Most probably coz i was the first flight attendant to be caught doing that. Coming from Malaysia and being educated in Malay & English i didn’t speak a word of Japanese. That was hell for me… Shouganai, which means Cest la vie…
    But all in all everything turns out well. I’m teaching japanese for the tourism department back home apart other things which are fully legal. With all those quiet moment in solitary i practised Kanji day & night even made it an aim to be a lecturer in teaching japanese when i get back home. Suddenly the news came that i’m going to be given Karishaku ( parole ) and it’s time to go back home. It’s strange but i felt empty for a while there. Things that i would write about my experience would be endless but i always thought that people would never understand it. Now i know that i’m not alone i can put my mind at rest…

  13. My cousin, an American citizen was sentenced today to 6-1/2 yrs for attempting to rob a taxi and wounding the driver in 2008. Will Japan deport him or will he actually sit in a Japanese prison for 6-1/2 yrs?? Can the U.S. Embassy or Amnesity International assist our family in this matter??

  14. Tina, why would they waste their time on a criminal like your brother? He got exactly what he deserved, and no one’s time should be wasted on some fool who thought it clever to rob AND wound someone in a foreign country.

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