A Plea for Better Treatment of Foreigners Held in Japanese Jails, Police Cells Immigration Centers and Other Places of Temporary Confinement




To: The Minister for Justice,
Mr. Shimoinaba Kokichi

The Catholic Church in Japan has always been active in providing what little assistance it can to foreigners who, for a variety of reasons, visit our shores. We know the complicated problems facing foreign workers here and are fully aware that helping and supporting them is no easy task. The questions are not the simple kind that can be solved by official policy. However, no matter how complicated the problem may be, we start with the premise that in the eyes of God, race and nationality are set aside and each person is endowed with unique, human dignity. This is the principle that has been and will continue to be the basis of our concern for the foreign community here.

Now, when, sadly, some of those foreigners break our laws, they are in due course interrogated in police cells, held in places of temporary confinement or sent to jail, but it has come to our knowledge, that, from a humanitarian standpoint, there are many areas where the treatment accorded them needs to be emended. We are aware that the people in charge, the responsible officials, are acting according to the rules; we know also that efforts are being made to improve conditions in the various institutions concerned. Nevertheless, we are convinced that in the humanitarian view there are still many, many situations that call for immediate remedial measures. It is this conviction which has prompted us to submit the following items for your attention and to request that everyone in the Ministries concerned and all responsible officials do something to improve the conditions under which foreigners are at present held in detention. We also request that the Minister carry out the necessary amendment of the pertinent laws and regulations.

1. To be sent to jail or any place of confinement is, even for a Japanese, a nerve-racking experience. In the case of people from overseas who do not know the language or customs of Japan, even a trifling incident can add greatly to that strain. This is why many foreigners in custody have fallen victim to neurosis and mental ailments. As a first step therefore toward amending the situation we earnestly request that the staff in these institutions be educated in the requisite foreign languages. Further, when foreigners are taken into custody, the officers in charge should show them the consideration of giving them directions and an explanation written in their own language or at least have this read to them. This explanation should contain the information that the accused have the right in justice to request a lawyer.

2. In cases where the people detained contract neurosis or some mental disorder due to various causes, we humbly request that the Ministry provide them with a counselor. We would hope that, instead of punishing them for words and actions caused by mounting anxiety and leading to a disruption in prison routine, a specialist or counselor be enlisted and the case be dealt with in this way.

3. We wish to record here also an earnest appeal to amend the prison rule that allows family visits only. Visits from families in distant lands are so expensive as to be almost impossible. On the other hand, prison life without family visits increases loneliness and anxiety. At the very least we should like the law amended to allow visits from someone who represents the family and is authorized by them.

4. It is also our sincere hope that the Ministry will take steps to educate and train the staff in these institutions especially in the use of Asian languages, so that people in detention can freely write letters in their own language and speak that language when they have visitors. We heard of a case that runs contrary to all humanitarian concepts, the case of a mother who after traveling all the way from Israel to visit her son in jail, had to return home without exchanging one word with him, all because she could not speak English or Japanese.
Raising the linguistic efficiency of the staff, however, will take time. In that case we suggest that, provisionally, the Ministry could make use of NGO personnel or other civilian sources.

5. Because of our involvement with people in detention we have found that the awareness of and interpretation of their responsibility, on the part of personnel in prisons and places of detention here, are far below international level. Could we entreat the Minister to provide officials and all personnel with a solid grounding and education in the principles involved so as to give them a greater consciousness of human rights? The raison d*etre of a prison has changed. Its definition as “a place of punishment” is changing to “a place of regeneration”. We are convinced that this is the present trend in international society. Hence our petition to the Ministry to provide prison staff with the kind of education and training that will include counseling their charges toward regeneration.

6. Merely meeting out punishment to people does not help them to get back on their feet. They need counseling and the strength that religion can provide. This is an area that touches on problems of the heart and the spirit, the area where religion is of the greatest assistance. As to how they should treat the religion a detainee believes in, we entreat the authorities to take the broad view and respond with understanding and flexibility. In the case of Catholics, for instance, baptism, the Mass, the Eucharist, have a profound meaning for them. We are sure that a study of the position of religion in other countries and the part it plays in people’s lives would lead to a greater understanding of prisoners’ needs in this regard.

7. Finally it is our earnest hope that the Ministry would increase the number and quality of translators available in the immigration bureaux, temporary detention centers and other such places, and put the system on a firm basis. The need is not only for competence in speaking a certain foreign language but also a thorough acquaintance with the language and system of the law courts, in order to ensure a fair trial for the person accused.

The requests we have listed above are the fruit of experience gathered over the years from our involvement with the foreign community. If the Ministry of Justice could, from a humanitarian point of view, achieve a better approach to the foreigners in our jails and detention centers, we are convinced it would be another proof of Japan’s openness and readiness to play its part as a member of international society.

November 12, 1997

+Stephen Hamao Fumio
Chairman of the Standing Committee
The Catholic Bishops Conference of Japan