Frontierland Japan, Part Two: Death Row Theme Park

By Alex Hoban

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Abashiri Prison is Japan’s most infamous Meiji-era incarceration unit. Built in the remote outer reaches of Eastern Hokkaido, political exiles and dangerous criminals were bundled off to serve lengthy, sometimes indefinite, sentences in this isolated little hell hole. The harsh Siberian climate took as many lives as the torturous living environment. But Japanese people don’t like all that gloomy, sad stuff, which is why they dismantled it, rebuilt it on a hill a couple of kilometres up the road and turned it into an animatronic dummy-filled, fun-packed detention Disneyland. After it moved, a new high-security prison was built in its place, and it is still in operation today. Though undoubtedly nowhere near as bad as the old Abashiri gulag of yore, it still ain’t no weekend in Butlins.

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To get an overview of the history, we visited the prison theme park.

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Most of the English signage was absolute gibberish, and when they did make sense they usually focused on what a jolly time the prisoners were having and how they were all making friends and learning the true spirit of brotherhood – when in fact they were all dying from cold, depression and herpes.

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But if this posing waxwork is to be believed, the prisoners spent most of their time dancing for joy.

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This maintenance guy goes into the real prison twice a month to fix broken pipes and clean up prisoners' blood, piss and vomit. We asked him if the real inmates 2km down the road were now were dancing about like the waxworks. Apparently they weren’t. He didn’t get to speak to the prisoners though, because they’re too dangerous. When we asked him if he’d ever witnessed any jailbreaks in his time he admitted one guy tried to escape a couple of years ago in the middle of winter, but after hopping the brick wall and barbed wire fence he drowned in the freezing river.

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The following morning we parked a way off from the real prison and made our way to the complex on foot.

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We chatted with this friendly prison guard. At first he wouldn’t let me take pictures, but after warming to us he even started posing for them – which kind of killed the thrill of the photographic espionage. He told us most of the prisoners were from the Tokyo region – a high number of them in for drug related offences. No prisoners on death row are kept here any more though; I doubt he’d be so chirpy if they were. In Japan, the death row procedure is still particularly dark. Prisoners on death row are not allowed any communication with family, friends, or anyone else during detention. They’re not told when they’re going to die until the day of the execution. The family are not informed until after the death has taken place.

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Considering this prison was supposed to be ultra-high-security, it had a kind of playful frivolity about it. We asked if we could meet some prisoners, but the guard simply directed us to this flower bed, telling us they’d been allowed to plant them as a treat for good behaviour, and it would have to do.

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At one end of the prison there was a shop selling items made by convicts, including this rather dashing pair of bowling shoes.

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We hung out on the so-called "Mirror Bridge" (because it’s a place where the prisoners have a chance to reflect, innit), trying to chat to anyone who walked by. Understandably, most people visiting prisoners were in no rush to talk to a couple of young foreign punks trying to undermine the undoubtedly troubling experiences they were going through.

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This lady had travelled up from Tokyo to support her best friend, who was visiting her son behind bars. Her friend’s son was in for drug-running between China and Tokyo. She was desperately concerned with the state of the prisoners' health, believing them to be malnourished and sleeping in bad conditions. In winter, when the temperature dropped as low as minus 20C, her friend’s son was still sleeping in the simple linens he was issued in summer. It was up to family and friends to supply extra clothing or prisoners would simply freeze, presumably to death.

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Afterwards, we decided to subtly follow this prison guard and snuck another snap of the gardening prisoners.

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"Are they real prisoners?" we asked the guard.

"Yes, dangerous ones. You should run away."

"If they’re so dangerous, why do they have power tools?"

"That’s why I’m here, to make sure they behave."

"But you don’t even have a gun."

"Oh."

Follow Alex on Twitter: @alex_hoban

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