How Japan Uses Low Crime Rates To Justify Its Cruel Prison System

The death penalty is alive and well in the land of the rising sun -- and death row is particularly wretched.

Public order comes at a high price in Japan
Public order comes at a high price in Japan
Phillipe Pons

TOKYO – On Feb. 21, Japan hanged three death-row inmates. These executions, the first in 18 months, took place only a few months after Shinzo Abe"s new government took office.

There is no question as to whether Abe will use his mandate to abolish the death penalty. During his previous stint as Prime Minister in 2006-2007, ten people were hanged in less than a year.

The last executions have prompted no public debate. According to polls, the majority of Japanese people support the death penalty, and there are very few vocal abolitionists. Japan is one of the only industrialized country to retain capital punishment, along with the U.S. and South Korea.

Although the deterrent effect of the death penalty is debated by criminologists, the Japanese government argues that having the lowest crime rate in the OECD justifies having the death penalty, as well as extremely tough prison conditions. Public order comes at a high price in Japan – the price of prisoner rights and the presumption of innocence.

Executions, which are carried out by hanging, are shrouded in secrecy. Family members are only informed about the executions after the fact. Death row inmates are held in isolation, without the possibility of communicating with other detainees. They can await their executions for months, sometimes years. Every day, at dawn, they count the steps of the guards in the corridors – if there are more than normal, it means that there will be an execution.

Masao Akahori lived through this anguish for 31 years, before being retried and found innocent. One day, the guards opened his cell door and were about to say the dreaded words – "your time has come" – when they realized they were in the wrong cell.

There are currently 134 prisoners in Japan waiting to be executed, the largest number ever in the history of the country. Some Justice Ministers establish a de facto moratorium by not signing any execution orders. This was the case from July 2010 to March 2012, but most of them sign the orders.

On death row, as in the rest of Japanese prisons, the living conditions are particularly harsh. Since the end of the 1960s, the prisons are ruled with an iron fist. “It is forbidden to speak; you must look straight ahead,” read the signs. The workshops and mess halls are silent. Prisoners, wearing green uniforms, sandals and caps, are only allowed to talk to each other during their 15-minute breaks or after dinner. They walk in a straight line, arms along their body, eyes fixed on the neck of the prisoner in front of them. Cavity searches take place twice a day.

No transparency

This kind of extreme discipline is considered to be totally antiquated by other industrialized countries – the Japanese penal laws date back to 1908. But the Japanese say that their system allows them to avoid the problems plaguing most Western prisons – riots, drugs, assaults on guards, brawls and escapes.

Tokyo Detention Center - Photo: PekePON / GNU

The problem is that that there is no transparency in the 188 prisons and detention centers, something that allows for abuses of power. Prisoners are sometimes placed in isolation for more than 60 days, and the leather handcuffs that violent or unruly prisoners are forced to wear can cause suffocation. The harshness of prison conditions is meant to instill a “sense of shame” in the prisoner whose offense or crime falls within a “loss of moral sense.”

Another expression of the Japanese authorities’ discretionary power is police custody. An arrested person can be held in detention for 23 days without having access to a lawyer or being formally charged.

Many people crack under pressure and confess to crimes they haven’t done. Almost all convictions are obtained thanks to “confessions.” In 2012, a Nepalese man sentenced to life imprisonment was found not guilty of a crime for which he served 15 years in jail and had always claimed he was innocent of. The introduction of the jury system in 2009 does not seem to have changed much.

Even though its prison conditions are very difficult, Japan incarcerates fewer people than in other developed countries. There are 55 prisoners for every 100,000 habitants, against 149 in the UK, 716 in the U.S. and 99 in France. Repeat offenses are also lower than anywhere else.

The low crime rate in Japan can be explained by other factors than its repressive system, most notably a severe legislation in regard to firearms. Gun ownership was banned in 1965 and penalties are very severe. In 2012, there were only 45 firearm-related crimes (killing eight people), of which 33 were gang-related. But even Japanese mobsters have a tough time finding guns on the black market. The tiny neighborhood police stations that are integrated into local life have also contributed to the safety of the cities.

Japan's low crime rate is enviable, but it should not exempt the country from treating its prisoners justly.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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