Many Americans have a skewed perception of Japan. As skewed, perhaps, as many foreigners have of America, many of whom seem to expect cowboys and Indians. Of Japan, the image arises of the feudal Samurai, the ritual Harakiri, visions of what Westerners like to call the Inscrutable Orient. From such a martial warlike history, one wonders what kind of justice system has evolved.
Rates of homicide, rape, robbery and theft are far, far lower than other industrial societies, such as the US, England, and Germany. Why are these rates are so low in Japan? If America’s conventional wisdom holds true, Japan must be building plenty of prisons, levying increasingly harsh sentences, and subjecting prisoners to draconian conditions, right? Wrong.
University of Washington Law and Eastern Asian Studies professor John O. Haley, author of “Mediation and Criminal Justice,” opines that the Japanese veer away from retribution and revenge, and towards restoration and social reconciliation. According to statistics published by the Supreme Court of Japan, the following median prison terms were returned for the following offenses: one homicide, five to seven years; two robbery, three to five years; three arson, three to five years; four rape, two to three years. The median term for all criminal offenses combined was one to two years. Persons sentenced to prison rarely serve over one term in Japan. For example, in 1984, 64,990, persons were sentenced to prison. Of that total 56% received suspended sentences, with less than 13% being subjected to prison terms exceeding one year. More surprisingly, 25% of those with suspended sentences were convicted of homicide or robbery. And of those convicted of arson or rape, 35% of the sentences were suspended. Only about 45% of all imprisoned persons serve full terms.
American critics view the Japanese penal practice with incredulity, if not outright amazement, and hastened to note the sharp distinctions in culture between the US and Japan. Curiously, American industrialists and economists raise few cultural barriers when attempting to incorporate Japanese business and managerial wisdom to the US workplace. Seemingly, what works in a factory environment becomes unmanageable in the prison context.
But truth be told, US prisons are, themselves, in a state nearing physical, social, ideological collapse, as over a million persons serve sentences, many set to expire, if at all, far into the next century. US prisons far from being a place of restoration, our social sinkholes of despair, of degradation of spiritual death. We could learn much from the Japanese, more than how to build a better mousetrap.
From death row, this is Mumia Abu Jamal. For more information about my case, racism, and the death penalty, and what you can do contact equal justice USA at 301-699-0042.