Contributions > Bunji Sawanobori

Bunji Sawanobori
Nanzan University

Human Rights in Japanese Prisons: Reconsidering Segregation as a Disciplinary Measure


 This paper discusses conditions in Japanese prison conditions, focusing on those aspects that remain unchanged despite the spread of modern international human rights norms in the 20th century. Japan enacted new prisons legislation in 2005-2006 following the Nagoya Prison Scandal of 2002-2003, the Act on Penal Detention Facilities and the Treatment of Inmates and Detainees (Act No. 50 of May 25, 2005; the ‘Penal Detention Act’). While there are six different kinds of disciplinary measure provided for under this new legislation, solitary confinement is by far the most frequently applied when Japanese prisoners breach prison rules and regulations. This situation is unchanged from that under the previous legislation, the 1908 Prison Act, which endured practically unchanged for nearly a century.

 This paper interrogates the disciplinary measures provided for in the Penal Detention Act, and argues that this reform has – in effect – provided a legal foundation for a prison warden to use disciplinary segregation as frequently as he wishes. The paper then critiques this Japanese approach on two grounds. These are firstly, that liberalizing wardens’ use of disciplinary segregation runs directly counter to what is known regarding harms to prisoners from this mode of punishment. The second ground is that it violates both the spirit and the provisions of the non-binding United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules) (29 September 2015, A/C.3/70/L.3). This global standard is based on the idea of ‘human dignity’ and establishes the principle that segregation should be the most infrequently used disciplinary measure, imposed only as a last resort.

 The paper ends on practical suggestion on ways of pressurizing Japan to make a more serious move-forward to protect human rights of prisoners. One is to use efficiently the Periodic Reports of Japan which Japan has as a duty under the ICCPR and CAT. UN Human Rights Committee, in response to the reports, recommends practical measures to improve the situation or demands further reports on the situation. They should include the criticizm on the solitary segregation as a breach of the Mandela Rules. The other is “the 14th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice” which will be held in Japan in April 2020. We are to see how the government respond to the criticism from the UN at the Congress.


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