Former American and British prisoners in Japan described working for 47 hours a week assembling shopping bags, electronic components and smoke detectors bearing the names of well-known companies, including electronics firm Sega and the department store chains Mitsukoshi and Dalmaru.
Prisoners who refused to work were locked up in solitary confinement for a week or more, where they were forced to sit at attention for 11 hours a day. Further disobedience was punished by strapping prisoners up in a harness and leaving them to eat, sleep and defecate with their hands pinned to their sides.
Simmering concern about the abuse of human rights in Japan intensified on Wednesday when the International Bar Association, which represents the leading criminal lawyers in the democratic world, said there was evidence of the systematic "mistreatment of detainees" by Japanese police trying to extract confessions from defendants.
After a fact-finding mission, the association said that investigators prevented suspects from exercising their right to silence and prevented them calling lawyers. Police have the right to keep defendants in solitary confinement for 23 days and several suspects told the lawyers tales of how they had been beaten.
All police effort was concentrated on forcing confessions rather than collecting forensic or other objective evidence, the association said. The outcome is the "remarkable" result that between 1980 and 1992, the conviction rate for defendants charged in Japan ranged between 99.98 per cent and 99.995 per cent.
For foreigners, who are involved in 20 per cent of Japanese criminal cases, experience of the daiyo kangoku system of police custody and jail, can prove devastating.
Roger Webb, an English teacher in Japan, was arrested with his brother in December 1990 for robbing a convenience store. Even though he has been back at his home in Brighton for a year, he is still a nervous wreck and takes 210mg of tranquillisers and anti-depressants each day "just to stay normal".
Webb, 33, never denied that he had threatened the shopkeeper with an imitation firearm and stolen pounds 800 from the shop. He was "blind drunk" after an office Christmas party, he said in mitigation. But he was subjected to relentless interrogation because the police wanted him to implicate his brother, who was subsequently acquitted of involvement in the crime.
"I was questioned for days on end," he said. "They handcuffed me and tied me to a chair and slapped me around the face. I couldn't see a lawyer or my friends until I said what they wanted me to say."
Webb served his three-and-a-half-year sentence in the Kosuge detention centre and Fuchu maximum security jail, both in Tokyo. Like all other prisoners confined to their cells, he was not allowed to move. "I had to sit cross-legged until 5pm, while the Japanese had to kneel. You could not exercise or lean against a wall. I got weals on my feet and excruciating back pains. The jail was damp and infested with insects. I would wake up in the night and find cockroaches running all over me."
The authorities make no apology for keeping prisoners motionless on the floor. "If a man is standing up you don't know if it is to have a drink of water or illegally communicate with prisoners in another cell," explained one official.
As Webb became sicker, the prison doctors prescribed tranquillisers and anti-depressants and in such large doses that he became addicted to them. The drugs meant he retained water and his body ballooned. Webb grew from 13 stone to 21 stone and by the end of his sentence was so weak and obese he had to be moved in a wheelbarrow. "The first time I saw him I barely recognised him," said Mariko Kuyame, his girlfriend from the English school. "He couldn't talk to me because he had not spoken for so long he had forgotten how."
But Webb and other foreign prisoners said that, if anything, the conditions were worse for Japanese inmates, who had broken the strong social taboos against crime, which give Japan the lowest crime rates in the industrialised world.
Fuchu, where Webb finished his sentence making shopping bags for Japanese department stores , has 28 factories in the jail and is the focus of a growing international controversy about Japan's use of prison labour to produce goods for export.
The outcry has been loudest in the United States, in part because of the large numbers of American in Japanese jails but also because the issue of "slave labour" in prisons chimes with fears about "unfair" competition from Japan.
Sega, the Japanese computer games company, dropped the use of prison labour after American lawyers raised the issue and there have been angry denunciations from politicians. "Japanese companies that participate in this type of programme are promoting indentured servitude," said Congressman Gary Ackerman, who held hearings on forced labour.
"It is simply impossible for companies that abide by international standards to compete with goods produced by prisoners working eight and half hours a day for slave wages." Japan is accused of breaking Convention Number 29 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which prevents prisoners working for "private individuals, companies or associations" without their consent and without proper wages. Japan appears to breach both these conditions. As well as punishing inmates who refuse to work at Fuchu Prison, prisoners are forced to labour for private companies under a system of draconian discipline and for tiny wages. Workers must maintain absolute silence in the factories, and are not allowed to make eye contact with one another or their guards. There are two 10-minute tea breaks during the day and one 20-minute lunch break. They cannot go to the toilet without permission, which is frequently withheld.
The Japanese Ministry of Justice maintains that because it is organised and supervised by prison authorities who enter into contracts with private companies, prison labour does not violate the ILO convention. "Prison work is an inherent part of imprisonment with labour," says Kosuke Tsubouchi, director of the Tokyo regional Correction Headquarters. "The prison authority in Japan tries to co-operate with private companies which provide prison industry with a sufficient amount of useful work, thus improving prospects for rehabilitation."
But foreign prisoners do not find the work rehabilitating. Michael Griffith, founding attorney of the International League of Defence Counsel, a US law firm which specialises in representing defendants in foreign countries, said: "They don't have to recruit these workers. They don't have to insure them, or give them sick pay, or fulfil any of the obligations that they would in a regular factory. They know that their workers can never complain, or join a trade union, or get headaches, or take time off. Why should these companies get the benefit of convict labour? It is sheer, naked exploitation, and it is a disgrace in any country that calls itself a civilised democracy."
Griffith has made a career out of defending incarcerated foreigners in trouble all over the world. He acted for William Hayes, the American convicted of drug smuggling in Turkey whose experiences inspired the film Midnight Express. His last cause celebre was Michael Fay, the teenager flogged for vandalism in Singapore. Recently, he has been representing Christopher Lavinger, an American jailed in Japan for possessing drugs, who is seeking damages from the British clothing company Burberrys. Lavinger has claimed in affidavits and evidence to the US Congress that he made paper carrier bags for Burberrys' sales outlets in Japan. But the company is mystified by the charge. A spokesman said they had gone to all their agents and suppliers in Japan and found no one using Japanese prisons. The allegation, said the spokesman, was "nonsense".
While the two sides argue, human rights activists are in no doubt that the Japanese system is draconian. This week, leading Japanese lawyers arrive in London to discuss ways of reforming their criminal justice system with the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro), the penal reform pressure group. There will be plenty to talk about.
The Inter- national Bar Association's study of Japan, said that virtually every safeguard against miscarriages of justice was being ignored and the country had not even signed the United Nations Convention against Torture.
Suspects could not get out of police stations on bail and their rights to silence and legal representation were overruled by officers. No records were kept of their interrogations so they could not get the evidence to challenge forced confessions in court.
The Japanese legal system provided the "opportunity and environment for abuse," the lawyers concluded.