Revealed: the lethal regime of Japan's jails

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The Independent Online
HIROSHI NUMATA, if he is to be believed, was standing next to Edgardo Lim on the day that a Japanese prison guard kicked him to death.

Mr Numata, a middle-aged Japanese, and Lim, a young Filipino, were inmates of Fuchu Prison, one of Tokyo's biggest jails, and like most of its 2,250 prisoners they were required to work in the prison factories. One day in the summer of 1990, as they were welding metal grilles for car radiators, Edgardo Lim collapsed. The timing could not have been worse, supervising the 50 prisoners was one of the prison's most hated guards, notorious for his temper.

In Japanese prisons, it is necessary to ask permission before washing your face, going to the lavatory or speaking. To slump groaning beneath a work bench in full view of the prison's nastiest warden was disastrous.

Hiroshi Numata (not his real name) assumed that Edgardo was suffering from appendicitis. "He looked awful, and his hand was clasped to his side," he said, shortly after his release from Fuchu last year. "The guard started to kick him. He kicked him over and over again, first his legs, then his midriff, and his back. Edgardo couldn't do anything - he was like a sandbag." A few days later, the news came through that he had died in the prison clinic. According to the files at the Filipino Embassy, the cause of death was heart failure. Edgardo Lim was 28.

Mr Numata's story is almost impossible to prove. Its narrator is a twice- convicted rapist, the events he describes took place more than seven years ago, and witnesses have either left Japan or are untraceable. But the Centre for Prisoners' Rights, an organisation of Japanese lawyers, has received a corroborating account from a Pakistani prisoner who left Fuchu last year.

The ex-prisoners' story joins a growing body of evidence, from former and current inmates of Japanese jails, all indicating the same thing: that, despite its position as Asia's richest and most respected democracy, Japan maintains a prison regime that is cruel, abusive and occasionally lethal.

The newly arrived inmate at a Japanese jail is confronted with an array of regulations governing the conduct of almost every aspect of life. "While walking avoid folding your arms or hands... waving your shoulders intentionally... or dragging your shoes," inmates are told. "When you go to the toilet you shall take a permission tag with you, and hang it in a fixed place."

These draconian edicts are not published outside the prison (ostensibly on grounds of "security"), and governors and guards have wide latitude in interpreting them. Even the most alert prisoner is likely to fall foul of the rules, giving licence to sadistic guards like the one alleged to have kicked Edgardo Lim to death. "Regard for individual personality and human rights," says a report published on Friday by Amnesty International, "is sacrificed in favour of an overriding emphasis on total obedience and absolute control."

Those who break the rules face a variety of punishments, including "minor solitary confinement". This does not just mean being locked alone in a cell: prisoners have to sit cross-legged for hours on end, with their eyes fixed on a designated spot. Kevin Mara, an American convicted of drug trafficking, claims to have spent 10 days thus confined after opening his eyes without permission before a meal.

After being accused of throwing a book, Mr Mara was sent to a "protection cell". Officially, these are reserved for prisoners who are violent or suicidal; their occupants are monitored constantly through a video camera, and are bound with leather handcuffs attached to a belt. Prisoners are compelled to eat out of a bowl. They defecate through special trousers with a slit in the back. Two years ago, a man serving two months for drunk driving died in a "protection cell" apparently as a result of heatstroke. His family are suing the government for 60m yen (pounds 700,000) in compensation.

The Japanese government routinely denies it has a problem in its prisons, but increasing numbers of prisoners, including Kevin Mara, are bringing cases of alleged abuse to court, despite allegations that those who complain risk further punishment.