When reporting on Japanese trials, Western journalists occasionally describe a defendant as being sentenced to “life in prison.” Technically, Japanese law does not have 終身刑 (shūshinkei, literally “punishment until the body is finished”). Instead, there is 無期懲役 (muki chōeki, imprisonment with labor for an undefined term), the second harshest punishment after 死刑 (shikei, the death penalty), also sometimes colloquially referred to as 極刑 (kyokkei, the “ultimate punishment”).
Indefinite imprisonment may sound much like a life sentence (or what happens at Gitmo), and officially, it is. Sort of. But there is an important difference: hope. Even murderers sentenced to indefinite terms can aspire to 仮釈放 (kari shakuhō, parole), if they can be repentant model prisoners for two or three decades.
There may be a trend toward 刑の厳罰化 (kei no genbatsuka, harsher punishments), sometimes attributed to more severe sentences being meted out in trials before 裁判員 (saiban’in, lay judge) panels since that system started in 2009. Still, accounts by 刑務所 (keimusho, prison) insiders suggest 矯正施設 (kyōsei shisetsu, correctional facilities) full of criminals without hope would be much harder to manage. America could learn something here.
Japanese 刑罰 (keibatsu, punishment, sometimes also rendered 刑事罰, or keijibatsu) has a very different history from in the West, with a prominent theme being leniency. Ancient Japan adopted imperial China’s baroque, highly relational system of 律 (ritsu, rules of punishment), but toned down their severity, never adopting, for example, the infamous 凌遅刑 (ryōchikei, death by a thousand cuts).
Astonishingly, in 818 Emperor Saga actually abolished the death penalty, a moratorium that lasted over three centuries, during which period politically important offenders, at least, were instead sentenced to 流刑 (ryūkei, exile) to remote islands like Sado or Oki. That ancient Japan went so long without a death penalty is a remarkable historical fact, one that seems inconsistent with the state’s continued use of 絞首刑 (kōshukei, death by hanging) in the 21st century.
Currently Japan’s 刑法 (keihō, penal code) provides for six types of punishment. First, the rarely imposed and more rarely carried-out death penalty. Then there is 懲役 (chōeki, imprisonment with labor), usually imposed for a defined term of up to 20 years, though multiple offenses can lead to longer terms. Muki chōeki, discussed earlier, is rare — only 23 such sentences were meted out in the 2014 government year. There is also 禁固 (kinko, sometimes also written 禁錮), imprisonment without labor.
Chōeki seems to be reserved for morally culpable or 破廉恥罪 (harenchizai, “infamous” crimes) like murder or theft, while kinko is more likely for negligent or political offenses. The difference may be largely theoretical, though, since most people sentenced to kinko reportedly volunteer for labor anyway.
Labor as punishment reflects the Japanese emphasis on 矯正 (kyōsei, corrections), 更生保護 (kōsei hogo, rehabilitation and protection — particularly of juvenile offenders) and 社会復帰 (shakai fukki, returning to society). Part of the exercise is thus for 受刑者 (jukeisha — inmates, or literally, “people receiving punishment”) to acquire skills and discipline, the lack of which may have gotten them into prison in the first place.
Chōeki means many things are made at Japanese prisons: traditional and modern furniture, household items and car accessories, for example. In Matsuyama, some prisoners even work at a shipyard. If you can, visit a 刑務所作業製品展示即売会 (keimushosagyō seihin tenjisokubaikai, prison manufactured goods exhibition), where you can pick up a nice chest of drawers or — my favorite — a snappy phone case emblazoned with “PRISON” and 獄 (goku, another term for “prison”).
Most sentences of imprisonment are for just a few years, and those of three years or less may be suspended (執行猶予, shikkō yūyo). If the convict does not re-offend during the suspension period, the original sentence is vacated. Suspended sentences may also be combined with 保護観察 (hogokansatsu¸ probation).
Another form of punishment is 拘留 (kōryū), short-term detention for a period of a month or less. Confusingly, it is a homophone for another 勾留(kōryū), which refers to pretrial detention, which is technically not a form of punishment.
Punishments that don’t take your freedom take your money or stuff. A supplementary sanction in some cases is 没収 (bosshū), confiscation of assets or property related to the commission of the underlying crime. 罰金 (bakkin) are penal fines of ¥10,000 or more, while 科料 (karyō) are for lesser amounts. Here another homophone rears its head: 過料 (also karyō) refers to the myriad nonpenal fines imposed by laws outside the criminal sphere. To distinguish the two, penal karyō are sometimes referred to as togaryō, while nonpenal fines are referred to as ayamachiryō. What’s the difference? Nonpenal fines do not result in 前科 (zenka, criminal records). Moreover, you don’t have to work them off in prison as you would if sentenced to a penal fine while broke.
Drivers may be hit with 反則金 (hansokukin), a special administrative fine imposed for minor traffic violations; special because if you don’t pay, you can end up in criminal court. Finally, there are 追徴金 (tsuichōkin), financial penalties that are most common in the world of tax and imposed when you fail to pay a tax or other public duty.
Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto.