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The Penal System

Prisons, in existence in some feudal domains as early as the late sixteenth century, originally functioned to hold people for trial or prior to execution. Because of the costs and difficulties involved in long-term incarceration and the prevailing standards of justice that called for sentences of death or exile for serious crimes, life imprisonment was rare. Facilities were used sometimes for shorter confinement. Prisoners were treated according to their social status and housed in barracks-like quarters (see Seclusion and Social Control , ch. 1). In some cases, the position of prison officer was hereditary, and staff vacancies were filled by relatives.

During the Meiji period (1868-1912), the country adopted Western-style penology along with systems of law and legal administration. In 1888 an aftercare hostel (halfway house) was opened for released prisoners. Staffed mainly by volunteers, this institution helped ex-convicts reenter society. Many ex-convicts had been ostracized by their families for the shame they had incurred and had literally nowhere to go. The Prison Law of 1908 provided basic rules and regulations for prison administration, stipulating separate facilities for those sentenced to confinement with and without labor and for those detained for trial and short sentences.

The Juvenile Law of 1922 established administrative organs to handle offenders under the age of eighteen and recognized volunteer workers officially as the major forces in the community-based treatment of juveniles. After World War II, juvenile laws were revised to extend their jurisdiction to those under the age of twenty. Volunteer workers were reorganized under a new law and remain an indispensable part of the rehabilitation system.

The Correctional Bureau of the Ministry of Justice administers the adult prison system as well as the juvenile correctional system and three women's guidance homes (to rehabilitate prostitutes). The ministry's Rehabilitation Bureau operates the probation and parole systems. Prison personnel are trained at an institute in Tokyo and in branch training institutes in each of the eight regional correctional headquarters under the Correctional Bureau. Professional probation officers study at the Legal Training and Research Institute of the Ministry of Justice.

In 1990 Japan's prison population stood at somewhat less than 47,000; nearly 7,000 were in short-term detention centers, and the remaining 40,000 were in prisons. Approximately 46 percent were repeat offenders. Japanese recidivism was attributed mainly to the discretionary powers of police, prosecutors, and courts and to the tendency to seek alternative sentences for first offenders.

The penal system is intended to resocialize, reform, and rehabilitate offenders. On confinement, prisoners are first classified according to gender, nationality, kind of penalty, length of sentence, degree of criminality, and state of physical and mental health. They are then placed in special programs designed to treat individual needs. Vocational and formal education are emphasized, as is instruction in social values. Most convicts engage in labor, for which a small stipend is set aside for use on release. Under a system stressing incentives, prisoners are initially assigned to community cells, then earn better quarters and additional privileges based on their good behavior.

Although a few juvenile offenders are handled under the general penal system, most are treated in separate juvenile training schools. More lenient than the penal institutions, these facilities provide correctional education and regular schooling for delinquents under the age of twenty.

According to the Ministry of Justice, the government's responsibility for social order does not end with imprisoning an offender, but also extends to aftercare treatment and to noninstitutional treatment to substitute for or supplement prison terms. A large number of those given suspended sentences are released to the supervision of volunteer officers under the guidance of professional probation officers. Adults are usually placed on probation for a fixed period, and juveniles are placed on probation until they reach the age of twenty. Volunteers are also used in supervising parolees, although professional probation officers generally supervise offenders considered to have a high risk of recidivism. Volunteers hail from all walks of life and handle no more than five cases at one time. They are responsible for overseeing the offenders' conduct to prevent the occurrence of further offenses. Volunteer probation officers also offer guidance and assistance to the ex-convict in assuming a law-abiding place in the community. Although volunteers are sometimes criticized for being too old compared with their charges (more than 70 percent are retired and are age fifty-five or over) and thus unable to understand the problems their charges faced, most authorities believe that the volunteers are critically important in the nation's criminal justice system.

Public support and cooperation with law enforcement officials help hold down Japan's crime rate, with little or no threat to internal security. The external security threat in the is also considerably reduced from previous years. The Japanese government is confident that diplomatic activity and a limited SDF, backed by United States treaty commitments, will be sufficient to deter any potential adversary.

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The most comprehensive treatment of the SDF is available in Jieitai nenkan (Self-Defense Forces Yearbook), the annual white paper published by Boei Nippo (Defense Daily), and Defense of Japan, published by Japan's Defense Agency. Other sources include James H. Buck's The Modern Japanese Military System, Harrison M. Holland's Managing Defense, and Malcolm McIntosh's Japan Re-armed. The International Institute for Strategic Studies' annual The Military Balance provides current data on the size, budget, and equipment inventory of the armed forces. Reinhard Drifte's Arms Production in Japan gives insight into Japan's developing defense industry.

The Police of Japan, published by Japan's National Police Agency, gives an excellent overview of the police system. Keisatsu hakusho (Police White Paper), published annually by the same agency, gives updated law enforcement information and crime figures.

Journals such as Japan Quarterly [Tokyo], Far Eastern Economic Review [Hong Kong], and Summaries of Selected Japanese Magazines (issued monthly by the United States embassy in Tokyo) frequently cover issues in defense and internal security and public order. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of January 1994

Country Listing

Japan Table of Contents