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What is life like for women held in Japan's prisons?

Julian Ryall in Tokyo
November 28, 2023

Rights groups are calling on the Japanese government to improve conditions for women in Japanese prisons. Statistics show most women in Japan are incarcerated for non-violent offenses.

A symbolic image of a woman in prison, her hands grasping a steel net fence.
Japan has 11 dedicated women's prisons, with 3,913 female inmates as of 2021, the most recent figures showImage: Suksao/IMAGO

Many of the women held in Japanese prisons endure "serious human rights violations," according to a report released by a rights watchdog this month.

The violations include inadequate access to health care, separation from their children and excessive restrictions in their communications within and outside of prison.

A number of women questioned for the report, published by the Japan office of Human Rights Watch, even claimed they had been handcuffed while giving birth in prison, a charge that the Ministry of Justice has denied.

Japan has 11 dedicated women's prisons, with 3,913 female inmates as of 2021, the most recent figures show. The number of incarcerated women is down from a high of 5,345 in 2011, although the number of inmates aged 65 or older is increasing and stood at 20% of the total in 2021.

The leading causes of imprisonment are theft or crimes involving drugs, with 48% of all inmates serving time for theft and a further 33% convicted of narcotics offenses.  

Falling short of standards

While the Japanese government is a signatory to international human rights conventions on the treatment of prisoners, Teppei Kasai, the rights watchdog's program officer, said it is falling short of the required standards.

"The reasons for these violations are complex," he told DW. "First, there are many women in Japan who shouldn't be imprisoned in the first place. Petty theft by older women, and the simple possession and use of drugs are the two leading crimes for which women are imprisoned for."

"Once they are imprisoned, they are in an environment that faces a serious shortage of resources, such as a lack of prison doctors and guards, which results in inadequate access to medical care as well as other abusive practices."

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The agency's study, which is titled "They don't treat us like human beings," examined the experiences of 59 former and serving female inmates. It said penal institutions in Japan are "incredibly opaque" in that they have no adequate independent and effective oversight.

And that, Kasai said, can lead to abuse of power.

In one case that he said he found particularly shocking, a former inmate was punished with solitary confinement for 28 days. After her release, a mental health professional diagnosed her with bipolar disorder.

Under the United Nations' Nelson Mandela Rules, to which Japan is a signatory, "In no circumstances may restrictions or disciplinary sanctions amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of punishment."

That includes prolonged solitary confinement, which the Mandela Rules identify as anything longer than 15 days.

Newborn babies taken from mothers

Ayuko Takatoh, an attorney with the Clarte Law Office in Tokyo, said that the wording of the legislation is often problematic if it is open to interpretation by prison authorities, such as with regard to children in prisons.

"With regard to a mother bringing up her child in a penal institution after giving birth, the law stipulates that the director of the penal institution 'may permit' the mother to bring the child up in the prison," she pointed out.

As a result of the wording of the law, virtually every child is taken away from their incarcerated mother soon after being born.

And while the Justice Ministry disputes reports of women being handcuffed during childbirth, Takatoh said women are restrained immediately before going into the delivery room and while they are in labor and then again shortly after they have given birth.

Between 2009 and 2017, 184 women gave birth in Japanese prisons. From 2011 to 2017, just three women were permitted to keep their babies with them in jail, the longest time being 12 days.

Improper treatment of prison inmates is a result of "low awareness of human rights among Japanese people due to a lack of education," said Takatoh.

"While Japan is a safe country and crime is low, there seems to be a sense that people who commit crimes are different from us and they are 'monsters' who should be excluded from society," she said.

Human Rights Watch and other activists are calling on the government to improve conditions in Japanese prisons and the wider judicial environment, including by decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs and introducing alternative punishments that would better help criminals to be reintegrated into society.

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Prison 'last resort'

"Imprisonment should be the last resort," said Kasai, who said community service is a far more appropriate sentence for older women charged with petty theft.

Kasai added that measures should be implemented to improve prison conditions, "Including not using restraints such as handcuffs on imprisoned pregnant women when they are being transferred to a hospital to get a checkup or to give birth, as well as immediately after giving birth."

Campaigners also believe women should be able to keep their babies for up to 18 months in prison and that they should have "adequate access" to medical care, including mental health care.

In addition, solitary confinement for misbehavior in prison should be limited to a maximum of 15 days, they said.

And Kasai is confident that positive change is possible.

"Robust debate and action within the Ministry of Justice and the parliament will be needed, but the necessary reforms should be possible with the clear understanding of both the authorities and the general public that the dignity of people who are in prison needs to be protected," he said.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea