British prisoners used as slave labour

Japan/ jail exploitation

THE JAPANESE government was accused last week of breaking international law by forcing convicts, including Britons and other foreign nationals, to work as "forced labour" for as little as 14p an hour.

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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future