So it’s come to this: “Prison is heaven, freedom is hell.” A country of which this can reasonably be said is in sad straits. Can it be reasonably said of Japan? It’s the subhead of a recent article in Shukan Shincho magazine whose main title is “Happy prison life.” Prison life is not happy, unless in comparison to something worse. What can be worse than deprivation of freedom? Deprivation, perhaps, of the most basic material needs — food, clothing, shelter. That’s writer Toshio Sakamoto’s point. A growing number of people, he says, are committing crimes with no other motive than the desire to land in the relative security of prison.
It’s a difficult claim to quantify with precision, but Sakamoto, a former prison official, notes that since Japan’s economic bubble burst 20 years ago the prison population — roughly 64,000 as of 2010 — has been both rising and aging. The average age of incoming prisoners, once in the late 30s, is now closer to 50. First-time prisoners in their 60s, he says, are no longer unusual. Some of them are educated. Some had respectable careers. What are they doing in jail?
Whatever involuntary inmates may say to the contrary, it’s not an easy place to get into. The entrance no less than the exit is well guarded. Barring injustice or very bad luck, it takes determination to penetrate the barriers. A first-time petty offense — shoplifting, fraud — will in most cases net you a suspended sentence. To earn a prison term, generally speaking, you must be either a serious or a repeat offender. For someone who is not a habitual criminal, that poses a challenge. If more and more people, senior citizens in particular, are rising to it, what does that say about the state of society in general?
Sakamoto’s evidence is more anecdotal than statistical — naturally. People seeking jail terms don’t as a rule advertise the fact. Some do: “I wanted a good New Year’s Eve dinner”; “I couldn’t take the cold” — this is the sort of comment Sakamoto hears, and in fact, he says, the New Year season usually sees a swelling of the prison population.
A typical “operation” might go something like this: You saunter walletless into a nondescript little restaurant (if it’s near a police station so much the better) when no one else is around (who needs an audience?); you order a meal, a beer, another beer, you run up a tab of maybe ¥1,500 — the rest of the story pretty well tells itself. The first offense probably won’t net you jail time, but the second might and the third is almost certain to. Shoplifting is another common modus operandi. Or this: Nagano Prison is especially popular — we’ll see why in a moment — so a would-be resident might take a taxi from Tokyo to Nagano and turn himself in after failing to pay the fare.
That, in a manner of speaking, is the lighter side of a grim social problem, but it can take desperate and dangerous turns, Sakamoto warns — citing, for example, a case in which a man randomly and fatally stabbed a woman to death and presumably got what he wanted: long-term removal from the vagaries of life in a rudderless, floundering, formerly more or less egalitarian economic superpower.
Nagano Prison has two principal claims to fame: excellent food and one of Japan’s most famous prisoners, the former (and likely future) tycoon Takafumi Horie, serving two and a half years for fraud. Jail is no haven of choice for him — he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court to stay out of it — but, judging by a rather bouncy interview he gave the weekly Shukan Bunshun last month, he seems to be making the best of it.
He is better known by his nickname, Horiemon, than by his name, and more admired for his flamboyant manner and lifestyle than for his business acumen. Before his arrest in 2006 this brash, youthful entrepreneur, founder of the Internet portal Livedoor, seemed the man to inject a little pizzazz into the staid, buttoned-down world of Japanese business. He stepped on too many toes and got his wings clipped. But what the hell: “My main goal in prison,” he says insouciantly, “is to stick to a diet.”
Indeed, the Shukan Bunshun interviewer remarks that the most noticeable difference in him is not the shaven head that replaces the Mohawk he once sported but his svelte dimensions — his fans (the word is not too strong) remember a more bloated figure. He’s lost 30 kg already and aims to shed 10 more. Prison fare helps — it is healthy and even tasty, but it errs, if at all, on the side of moderation. Above all, it is nonalcoholic, which took some getting used to. To Horie’s credit he did get used to it. What’s harder to adjust to, he says, is the lack of what he considers meaningful work. At first engaged in making little nets to put fruit in, he has since “been promoted” to nursing duties — caring for elderly and infirm prisoners. This is more demanding, but it’s still “like free time to me,” he says, squirming. Free time to him is no blessing. Asked what he misses most, he answers, “Work!” Real work, he means — causing money to be fruitful and multiply.
It’s interesting he should mention nursing, because Sakamoto in Shukan Shincho does too. It was never a conspicuous feature of prison life. It’s becoming one, as the prison population ages even faster than the population at large. The bright side, Sakamoto says, is that younger prisoners involved in caring for infirm older ones acquire abilities and qualifications they can maybe turn to professional advantage when released. It seems preferable to committing another crime to get back in.