In 2005, after a series of fatal incidents at Nagoya Prison that raised public suspicion about widespread abuse in the Japanese prison estate, Japan enshrined in law the principle of third-party oversight of penal facilities.
Seeking to harness the power of Japan’s civil volunteers’ sector, the parliament copied the Independent Monitoring Boards system that has been in place in England and Wales since 1952.
The present article uses the so-called “spiral model” of human rights norm diffusion from the political science literature as a framework to understand the incorporation of this system of prison governance in Japan.
Relying on interviews with key lawyers, Ministry of Justice documents, and communications with the United Nations’ Committee against Torture, the article takes stock of the developments since 2005, documenting the positive aspects, albeit still quite few, brought to the Japanese prisoner population by the Boards’ activities, as well as the places where the Japanese system continues to fall short of meeting the standards of its progenitor.
The conclusion emerging from this overview is that rather than being a bona fide attempt to further the situation of prisoners, the Boards’ system was incorporated by the Japanese bureaucrats as a way to fend off reproval for the disastrous failings at Nagoya.
The article ends on a positive note, however, observing, in line with the spiral model of rights’ norm diffusion, that having once made the tactical concession to introduce the Boards’ system, even if in an empty shell format, Japan’s bureaucracy is expected to be sucked, its kicking and screaming notwithstanding, ever more deeply into a cycle of compromises in favor of prisoners’ rights.