Is This Disneyland, Or Am I In Prison?

No country has more faith in the power of an adorable mascot than Japan. Their talisman-like powers have been employed in almost every walk of life: museums, theme parks, tourist attractions, festivals, and even whole cities. What is it about these mascots that make it appropriate for them to be as superfluous in a society as dedicated to serious work as Japan? Doi Takayoshi, commenting on their obvious kawaii (cute, to give a mild translation) nature points out a critical view of these characters as just another mask that people can hide behind to shield themseves from life’s unpleasant challenges, like interacting with other people and the obligations that go along with that. While mascots might make us feel more comfortable at Disneyland or the ball game, they can and should have their limits.

Japan has gone just a little too far. For the first time ever, there is a prison with a mascot. Asahikawa Prison in Hokkaido, Japan, has adopted Katakuri-chan, “a nearly two-meter humanoid with a large square face and an enormous purple flower (the Japanese dog-toothed violet) for hair.” The prison has stated that it wants to change its image from a dark and depressing place and instead highlight the positive and rehabilitative qualities of prison. I’m almost with them on this, but not quite. Yes, prisons are a place we send the people who have wronged society and yes, they are supposed to teach the inmates the error of their ways and hopefully release them wise and repentant back into the public. But is a mascot going to do the trick to help with this high-minded goal? I don’t think so.

Katakuri-chan says, "Prison is fun!"

Katakuri-chan says, “Prison is fun!”

Japanese prisons are notoriously bad places to be. They are defined—and even pride themselves on—strict, arbitrary rules and a draconian sense of discipline. No talking, no unauthorized motion, no looking around; one man was sentenced to ten days in solitary confinement for looking up at an inappropriate moment. Japanese wardens and lawmakers point to their low recidivism rates and the almost total lack of prisoner-on-prisoner violence as justification for these policies, but is it worth the cost?

Japanese culture is characterized by a sincere desire to preserve harmony. What this means for the world of criminal justice is that many crimes go unpunished and many innocent people are jailed. The rate of crime in Japan, particularly violent crime like rape, is extremely low. This has more to do with underreporting than it does with genuine harmony. Assault and molestation, for example, are unpleasant things to think about, and reporting such an incident would reflect poorly on the victim and their family. Upsetting everyone with such a story is not seen as worth the risk or cost. When a crime is actually reported, however, a suspect is apprehended and convicted 99% of the time according to one source. This incredibly high number of convictions is aided in part by the small burden of proof and the desire by the often innocent suspects to keep the peace; a confession is usually all that is needed as proof of guilt.

The criminal justice system in Japan is severe but efficient, and has raised red flags for human rights organizations. There are unaddressed problems in the country that end in prisons but need to begin with society at large. If more of the crimes that were actually committed were reported, and the guilty parties were truly routed out, I suspect that their pristine prisons would be much more full and in need of more than a mascot the help their image. This mascot-as-coping mechanism trend is just one more way of glossing over the very real problems in the system.


Image source: Kidscreen


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