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The arrested development of female prisons

Though the prison population in Japan is remarkably small compared to other countries, there have been increases in recent years among certain demographics. The media is particularly sensitive to elderly inmates. Less remarked upon are female prisoners.

A Ministry of Justice study released last year stated that arrests of women had been on the increase since 1993 and numbered about 50,000 in 2015. Arrests of women stood at about 20 percent of all arrests, but the number of older women being arrested was rising, and at a higher rate than that for elderly men. Until 1998, less than 20 percent of women arrested were over 50. Since 2010 this cohort represents more than 40 percent of women arrested. The vast majority were for theft-related crimes, mainly shoplifting.

As a result there are more women in prison. A 2014 report by the online magazine News Post 7 said there were about 5,000 women in penal institutions that year — a fivefold increase over 1992 — as opposed to about 60,000 men. A 2017 article in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun says that the female prison population started to increase in 1990 and has risen to the point where the capacity for women inmates is insufficient to handle demand.

One problem is that it is difficult to find female guards. According to a 2017 article in the Nishi Nippon Shimbun, the turnover rate for female guards is just over 37 percent “before the end of the third year of employment,” about 2½ times the turnover rate for male guards. The Justice Ministry told the newspaper that one reason is the higher average age of female prisoners, who are more difficult for guards to deal with.

There are 10 prison facilities in Japan that accept women and at least three have more prisoners than they can handle. Many of the remaining are at over 90 percent capacity, according to the Nishi Nippon Shimbun article. Meanwhile, male prisons nationwide are at 61 percent of capacity.

The number of women per cell in the TV Asahi prison drama “Joshu 7” (“7 Women Prisoners”; Friday, 11:15 p.m.) is seven, which could indicate that the show is adhering to reality since, according to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun article, standard per-cell occupancy in Japan is six. But given the show’s dramatic prerogatives, it’s likely the number was simply chosen to ring bells: The title is meant to remind viewers of the popular women’s weekly magazine Josei 7.

To anyone with a Netflix account, it’s difficult to watch “Joshu 7” and not think of the American series, “Orange is the New Black.” These viewers may be disappointed, however, and not just because the quality of the writing and acting, in contrast, is lacking.

Where the show really drops the ball is with its disregard for the economic situation that has led to higher rates of crime and recidivism among women.

Except for one middle-aged homemaker, whose crime was killing her terminally ill husband, all of the seven titular convicts are relatively young. And while one is in jail for larceny (more specifically, ordering expensive meals in restaurants and then leaving without paying), her criminal behavior is the product of a neurosis induced by a failed love affair.

The one thing the seven cellmates have in common is that their crimes can all be traced to their relationships with men. The theme of the series, repeated at the end of each episode, is, “The person who commits a crime is not bad; rather, it is the person who drove them to commit the crime who is to blame.” In other words: Men made them do it.

While the sexual dynamic that still rules most of the world victimizes women more than it does men, the show removes the agency of women in the perpetration of the crimes they commit. Everything is a reaction to a romantic relationship — or lack thereof. One of the inmates is a young woman who confronted the male bullying she suffered as a girl by seducing older men and then killing them for their money. Another is an ambitious political aide who has taken the fall for her male boss in a money scandal. There’s a former juvenile delinquent who killed her abusive husband, and a nurse who murdered the wife of the hospital chief she was having an affair with.

The only one who doesn’t fit this pattern is the protagonist, Kotone (Ayame Goriki), an apprentice geisha convicted of killing a colleague out of jealousy. Kotone is stone-faced and super-human in her ability to ignore the hackneyed hazing attempts of her cellmates. Someone dumps a dead cockroach in her bowl of rice and she scarfs it down without a wink or a whimper. As the series continues there’s a feeling that she’s trying to uncover some sort of political malfeasance involving the justice minister (Masanobu Takashima), who used to patronize the Kyoto entertainment establishment where she worked.

The comically cruel head of the women’s guards (Miwako Shishido) is in cahoots with a shadowy figure outside the prison who compels her to break Kotone and find out what she knows about a “black leather notebook” that may or may not implicate the justice minister. In each episode, the guard brainwashes one of Kotone’s cellmates into trying to force Kotone to reveal what she knows, but Kotone always turns the tables, forcing the cellmate to come to terms with the real reason for her incarceration.

Despite its dramatic failings, the series does try to present the circumstances of female inmates in an informative, albeit uncomfortably humorous, way.

Each episode contains a brief PowerPoint presentation by the warden and his bumbling assistant on some aspect of rehabilitation or recreation. At first, the idea that female prisoners are assigned pink garb seems like a cute comment by the producers, but apparently many women’s prisons do favor pink, and not just in terms of clothing — Ehime’s women’s prison also has pink bedding. The talent shows and beautician courses used as plot devices on “Joshu 7” are also a means of keeping female prisoners in the world, so that they will be better prepared to re-enter it when they’ve paid their debt to a society that still limits their roles.

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