Towards an Evolutionary History of Penological Information in Modern Japan

By Takashi Miyamoto, CArchipelago Project Researcher


The history of modern prisons in Japan started with efforts to translate information on penology from western countries and their colonies. Kangokusoku Narabini Zushiki (Prison Rules with Figures), the first prison regulations written by Ohara Shigeya in 1872, reflected the information he obtained during his tour to Singapore and Hong Kong in 1871. During the tour, he was introduced to western as well as colonial ideas of penology, including those of Jeremy Bentham, through J.F.A. McNair, the last superintendent of Singapore’s convict prison, which used to receive transmarine convicts from the Indian subcontinent. While Ohara’s rules were repealed shortly afterwards, due to government budget constraints, the translation of penal ideas continued to be an important part of the activities of Japanese penal practitioners.

The conditions behind the “modernization” of Japanese penal practices were interesting in several ways. First, the modernization process of Japanese prisons was started in the last quarter of the 19th century. It was the period when penological information was enthusiastically exchanged internationally. Since information on penal practices was not considered to be secret, prison officials were given strong incentives to exchange information. One of the known areas exhibiting this trend included a series of international penitentiary/ prison congresses.

Second, when Japanese penal practitioners launched their “modernization” project, they had access to the pre-existing “archives” of penology. Print media had been popularized in the middle of the century. Books, pamphlets and reports on penology were published and circulated widely within and without national borders. Popularization of literature on crime and punishment was in full swing as the theme had piqued the curiosity of the public due to factors such as increased urbanization and population growth. Through translation into Japanese, Japanese prison architects could access the vast archives of penological information.

Third, they were given a strong incentive to design a “humanitarian” penal system. The Tokugawa shogunate concluded a series of “unequal” treaties with the United States, Russia, France, Great Britain and Holland in 1858. The treaties were considered to be “unequal” because they introduced a system of extraterritoriality and did away with tariff autonomy. The Tokugawa shogunate also agreed to offer “the most favoured nations treatment” to these countries. Similar treaties were concluded with a few other countries including Prussia, Italy and Austria-Hungary between 1860 and 1869. Revision of these treaties became one of the most important national policies of the Meiji government that was restored in 1868. For the penal practitioners, it was extraterritoriality that was at the center of their concern. The persons from these countries were exempted from the jurisdiction of Japanese law, and were subject to the laws of their consular courts. The rationale behind the introduction of such a system was the assumption that the penal practice in Japan was not adequately modernized. Thus, the Meiji government’s goal was to modernize its penal practices so that offenders could be treated in a “civilized” way.

Dainippon Kangoku Kyokai (DKK: Penitentiary Society of the Empire of Japan) was a voluntary association organized by prison officers, persons involved in criminal justice, lawmakers and other dignitaries. It was established in 1888 with the goal of revising the “unequal” treaties. In the preface to the first issue of the bulletin of DKK, Ukawa Seizaburo, then president of DKK, illustrated the objectives of the society:

– Improvement in prison management

– Improvement in correction of juvenile delinquents

– Promotion of protection of released prisoners

– Promotion of protection of the poor and their education

– Promotion of penology.


Towards these ends, the society was to engage in the following activities:

– Publication of a bulletin containing lectures and articles on prison for circulation among society members and like-minded people

– Publication of translated or original articles on prison

– Communication with prison associations in Western countries to study the situations in these civilized countries.

[Bulletin of DKK, vol. 1 (May 11, 1888), pp. 5-6]

In the years that followed, the association published Japanese translation of articles on penology, originally written in various languages including English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch and Russian. Japanese penal practitioners were exposed to the vast archives on penology ranging from writings about John Howard’s prison reform to Cesare Lombroso’s theory.

Broadly speaking, the Japanese prison architects designed the “humanitarian” prison system and somehow “succeeded” in their civilizing mission, referring to the information accumulated through translation. The “unequal” treaties were finally revised in 1911 after the Russo-Japanese War. By then the “backwardness” of the Japanese penal practice was not a focus of criticism any more.

However, the evolution of the Japanese prison system was not linear if we view the details. One of the remarkable features of Ohara’s first prison regulations in 1872 was a system characterized with progressive stages. This system was influenced by the system developed in the prisons of the Straits Settlements, which received transported convicts from Indian subcontinent. Ohara considered that this system met the goal of humanitarian treatment. However, after the regulations were repealed the following year, another progressive stages system was introduced only in 1933.

While acknowledging the incentive structure offered by the “unequal” treaties to the discursive sphere of penology in Meiji Japan, we can study how the penal practitioners were selective in their choice of information from the “archives.” Thanks to the Japanese Correctional Association (JCA) Library, we can now access online digitized version of the bulletin of DKK and its sequels, Kangoku Kyokai Zasshi (Bulletin of the Penitentiary Society) and Keisei (Penal Administration, up to vol. 12, 1926). I am currently involved in philological research to trace the international network of penological information with the help of JCA librarians. Continuing further along the trajectory, I intend to map an evolutionary history of penological information.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Sanchit Jha for reading the draft of this entry and giving me valuable feedback as always.


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Clare Anderson

About Clare Anderson

I am a professor of history, with interests in colonialism and colonial societies across the British Empire. I am especially interested in the history of confinement. I have worked on prisons, penal colonies, plantations, and migrant ships, and my interests also include the history of coerced labour. I have held grants and fellowships from the ESRC, National Maritime Museum and British Academy; and I am currently directing the European Research Council funded project "The Carceral Archipelago" (2013-18). I am a member of the British Academy Area Panel for South Asia, I have held visiting professorships at the University of Technology Sydney (2009, 2011), and I am currently editor of the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History.

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One response to “Towards an Evolutionary History of Penological Information in Modern Japan”

  1. The politics of comparison: writing a global history of punishment

    […] best managed and incentivised, and how they should be punished and reformed. In a previous blog, Towards an Evolutionary History of Penological Information in Modern Japan, Takashi Miyamoto wrote of a high-profile Japanese tour to the former British East India Company […]

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