Date of the report
Author(s)Center for Prisoners’ rights / Pr Akaike (Univ. of Kyoto) / Mme Yasuda (Univ. of Kokugakuin)

Contact with the outside world

The number of visits for each prisoner is determined based on their "privilege level":

  • Level 1 prisoners can receive visitors seven times a month.
  • Level 2 prisoners five visits per month.
  • Level 3 prisoners three visits per month.
  • Level 4 prisoners (lowest level, most restricted) are allowed to receive two visits per month.

Meetings usually take place in a meeting room with transparent partitions separating prisoners from visitors and prohibiting physical contact. Prison guards attend the visits if deemed necessary "for the maintenance of discipline and order in the penal institution or adequate pursuance of correctional treatment of a sentenced person, or for any other reasons" (Article 112 of Act on Penal Detention Facilities and Treatment of Inmates and Detainees). Unfortunately, this supervision tends to be the rule rather than the exception.
Some prisons have meeting rooms without partitions for visitors, but such rooms are seldom used.

Prisoners are generally allowed to write to and meet with only their family, their lawyer and the embassy representatives (for foreigners). Prison officials control the length of each visit, which are by law, no less than five minutes and no more than 30 minutes.
There is no concept of conjugal or contact visits.

Almost all mail is censored, even mail addressed to the Bar Association or attorneys. There are limitations on the number of letters prisoners can write, but no limit on the number of letters they may receive.

Prisoners who cannot write in English or Japanese may find no censor is available and thus cannot send letters. Prisoners must pay for all postage and stationary; lacking funds, they cannot write letters.

It is extremely unusual for people detained in Japan to be allowed to make telephone calls. Sentenced inmates close to release may be permitted to engage in communication by telephone if it is deemed instrumental either for their reform and rehabilitation or for their smooth re-entry into society.

There is no clear and substantive criterion for parole disclosed to prisoners. The level of parole granted by prison officers is very restricted.

An administrative ordinance issued in 1998 further limited the opportunity for parole available to prisoners sentenced to life in cases of very serious or widely reported offences. This was done without the introduction of a new law, effectively creating a new type of sentence, "life in prison without possibility for parole" 1.   

Commuting to the outside world, day leave and furloughs are sometimes allowed in order to encourage reform and rehabilitation and re-entry into society.

  1. "Life in prison without the possibility for parole", whilst not unique to Japan, is considered to be inhuman and degrading treatment by the European Court of Human Rights. 

Prisoners are notified of internal rules and the administration ensures a booklet in each cell. Japanese law provides three grievance mechanisms as described above.

Prisoners can write to their lawyers but these letters are read by authorities and subject to censoring. Prison wardens usually monitor meetings with lawyers also.

Japan joined the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) in 1999. However, the government has so far been reluctant to ratify the Optional Protocol to the UNCAT (OPCAT), which requires the creation of an independent National Preventive Mechanism.

Instead, Japan established, in 2007, Penal Institution Visiting Committees (PIVCs) composed of a maximum of 10 members appointed by the Minister of Justice to monitor prisons and cases of human rights violations. PIVCs release reports and make recommendations. However, these PIVCs are not independent since members are part-time national public servants. There is no umbrella organisation to coordinate all PIVCs and thus improve effectiveness and credibility.

NGOs are demanding the establishment of a real independent mechanism to monitor penal institutions, psychiatric hospitals, and immigration detention facilities and bring to light prisoner human rights violations.