This 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.
There 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.