A few months ago I was walking through the underground concourse of Tokyo’s large Shinjuku train station. It is one of the busiest train stations in the world and a major commuter hub in Tokyo. The Tokyo City Hall - a 70-storey tower often called by its Japanese contraction “Tocho” - is nearby, as well as dozens of other high rise hotels, banks, department stores, insurance companies and office buildings of big corporations. Tokyo does not have a single downtown area like what many Canadian and American cities have. Instead, skyscrapers cluster around major commuter hubs like Shinjuku, or Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Shimbashi,
Tokyo (Tokyo Station), Roppongi, etc., all around the city. If you view the metropolis from a high rise observation deck you can see these islands of skyscrapers here and there piercing the panorama.
The station is served and connected to adjacent buildings by large, long underground concourses - walking spaces under the streets, under the train tracks, under the buildings overhead - accessed by hundreds of entrances/exits. (I read somewhere once that Shinjuku Station alone has over 500 exists. Not in my experience it doesn’t. But I have yet to walk through and see the entire underground structure. It’s vast and spreads out to all the adjacent neighborhoods like some kind of spreading fungus. So the figure of 500 exists is plausible.) Of course these concourses are just empty (wasted) spaces if they go unused, so there are also many shops down there: convenience stores, restaurants, shoes stores, florists, newspaper and tobacco kiosks, etc.
Some of the space is rented out on short leases to vendors. So on this particular day my wife and I passed a display area in the station - one of these spaces available for rent to vendors - that featured fantastic, artistically beautiful, expensive traditional Japanese wooden furniture for sale. They were the kinds of furniture that affluent folk with large enough homes would use. Affluent foreign visitors with the means of transporting the pieces back to their countries could affect exotic interior designs for their homes there. As we passed Junko said to me in English that the furniture had all been made by Japanese prison inmates. That is what a sign at the entrance said. That news dampened my initial enthusiasm for the beautiful furniture because I immediately thought of it as the product of a kind of slave labor. Because, you see, labor in prison factories is mandatory in Japanese penal institutions. Prisoners cannot just lay in their cells and rot. Contrary to my long argument that inmates cannot/should be forced to work in prison, in Japan it is just that: you are in prison, you work in a prison factory; you wear the prison uniform; you behave like a Japanese salaried company worker on the outside for a minimum remuneration that can be used to buy things from the prison canteen. From a philosophy of life perspective, Japanese believe that one lives to work, not the other way around which seems to dominate in Western countries.
My opposition to prison labor has always been that considering that the State only has the power to incarcerate people, not the authority to do so, once incarcerated the State still has neither the power nor the authority to require anything of the convicted other than to remain incarcerated for the duration of their sentences. My position is based on the view that penal institutions are primarily for punishment by incarceration, not hospitals for therapy or places for “rehabilitation,” modified by the observation that confusing “power” with “authority” is one of the persistent confusions of our kind.
Then I wondered about the role of Japanese prisons to rehabilitate foreign offenders. It seemed unlikely to me that foreign inmates might have produced the beautiful furniture that started my train of thought, but the presence of foreign criminals in Japan is a big topic. First, prisons have multiple functions: they penalize through incarceration and curtailment or denial of rights and freedoms; they protect society by sequestering those who would destroy it; they offer rehabilitation to those destined to re-enter society upon release. Perhaps much more as well that I cannot even imagine. But since foreign inmates are bound to be deported to their countries upon release anyway, it begs the question of the utility or efficacy of incarcerating them here and making them work at some trade in prison here for the purpose of “rehabilitating” them to re-enter (Japanese) society. They will not re-enter Japanese society. Instead, they will be deported from it. So one might say that in such cases prisoner exchange treaties with various foreign nations are useful in allowing criminals here to serve their sentences in their homelands. But on the other hand, it is logical to reason that offenses committed here create an obligation for the punishment to be served here.
Second, as I said the topic of foreign criminals is a hot potato in Japan. I have written about it before. Japanese politicians and police are mad over the foreign criminal issue, falling over themselves to stoke fear among the public of a foreign crime wave that the statistics deny. Never mind that any knowing person knows full well that the “foreign criminal” is a bogeyman invented to scare the public and help the authorities wield a big stick for greater social control, the Japanese public rather uncritically believes
what the police and politicians preach. What they preach is a lie. Statistically, foreigners in Japan are more law-abiding than Japanese citizens themselves. Furthermore, the most common crime “committed” by foreigners here is the visa violation - namely, overstaying an expired visa - which is a category of crime that just doesn’t apply to Japanese nationals. The most common criminal in Japan is the native Japanese criminal, and Japanese jails and prisons are unquestionably filled with Japanese
offenders, not foreign ones.
Naturally, Japanese are not unique this way. Objectifying, blaming, persecuting foreigners has always been and remains a tool in every society when things go bad and the public feels insecure. Look at America today. The war against terrorism, the invasion of Iraq, the infamous Patriot Act all rest on a mound of lies. We know they are lies and criminal actions based on lies perpetrated by a government. And yet knowing these things along cannot prevent us from being swept up in it.