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A Glimpse Inside Yokosuka Prison
U.S. Military Inmates Face Stern Discipline

Dec. 9, 1999

By Kevin Heldman

The administrative building of Yokosuka prison in Japan. To the side of this building is a ward for possibly the largest community of jailed American GIs anywhere outside the United States.

TOKYO ( -- Terutada Hirakawa, the warden of Yokosuka prison, agreed to an interview. A reporter and an interpreter sat in his office, being served tea by a guard while the sounds of loud militarylike chants and heavy marching were heard outside. Hirakawa seemed uncomfortable; he first agreed to recording the interview but then changed his mind, saying the tape recorder made him nervous.

If a member of the U.S. military stationed in Japan commits a crime against a Japanese citizen off base, he's tried in a Japanese court and serves his sentence in Yokosuka. Eighteen U.S. military personnel are housed in a special wing in Yokosuka, along with about 200 Japanese prisoners. Their average age is 25; their crimes run the gamut from robbery to murder. Hirakawa said they almost never have visitors.

The prison, a four-hour train ride from central Tokyo, is a sprawling complex of aging, low-lying barracks and factories partially surrounded by huge canyon walls.

A number of people familiar with prisons in Japan said conditions in Yokosuka are better than in other prisons.

'They don't respect my human rights'

American military officials meet with the American prisoners once a month, but Hirakawa made it clear that Japanese authorities control how they are treated.

He said inmates complain constantly, but he seemed to dismiss it as standard institutional discontent. "They don't respect my human rights. They moved my lotion," he said, mimicking the inmates. "They complain about shower policy. Every day, there are small complaints."

He said his staff responds to these complaints by investigating, checking to see if they are true. When asked if any of these complaints had any validity, he said his staff has found nothing in the past three years.

"The purpose of our existence is rehabilitation," Hirakawa said flatly.

Chobatsu leads to meditation

Like prisoners in the United States, Japanese inmates can be punished for anything from attempting suicide to talking back to guards. But as punishment in Japan, they are separated from others for up to 60 days and made to sit motionless for 12 hours a day. Hirakawa said he believes this punishment, called chobatsu, is an effective tool that brings about remorse and educates prisoners.

When pressed on how prisoners react to sitting motionless in a chair for up to two months -- do they scream, beg to be released, cry, meditate? -- Hirakawa answered that he has seen all reactions but stressed that most go into a meditative state.

During the interview, two Americans were in chobatsu, one for 20 days because he didn't want to work. In Japan, an inmate who doesn't work is forced to sit on the chobatsu box. According to experts, compulsory prison labor is technically legal in the United States as well, but in many jurisdictions make inmate labor voluntary because of pressure from the international community, human rights groups and labor groups, or it is simply not enforced.

Behind the walls

Hirakawa said prisoners cannot be interviewed, but after some politicking he allowed access to the prison. When he walked into one of the prison factories, the guard in charge raced up to the warden, saluted, bowed and screamed out the required response with such volume distortion that the interpreter couldn't understand it. The prisoners, dressed in gray uniforms and wearing baseball caps, kept their heads down while making soap products and assembling metal products. They were scrupulously careful not to make eye contact with anyone from the outside. Slogans about safety and comportment dotted the walls.

Outside, a black inmate in chains strutted street-style while being escorted by a stiff Japanese guard. Hirakawa motioned to a basketball court on the grounds and said a bit mockingly that the Americans take the game too seriously, that they're overly aggressive so the Japanese prisoners stay away from them.

Related Stories:

Inmate Details Forced Prison Labor, Abuse

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Related Documents:

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One barrack houses the American prisoners. Inside was a corridor lined with about 12 boxlike cells, each one labeled with an American surname. Each cell was the size of two tatami mats (about 11 by 6 feet) and had a gray metal sliding door with a handle on the outside and a small window that faces into the canyon wall.

Inside each cell was a tea set, a small wooden desk and a television mounted high on the wall. Issues of Vibe magazine and paperback novels lined bookshelves. Some of the cells had pictures of young children on the walls; some had provocative photographs of the prisoners' wives and girlfriends.

Two of the men in that corridor will be there for the rest of their lives.

Kevin Heldman is an staff writer (

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