Doing time in Hokkaido’s Abashiri Prison

Doing time in Hokkaido’s Abashiri Prison

by David Krigbaum

Hokkaido is Japan’s Alaska and Old West combined. In the 1800s this massive, harsh land was sparsely populated and rich in resources waiting to be exploited. Japan needed pioneers to go north and work the land but there was no infrastructure to support their migration. More importantly, the Russian Empire had become increasingly active in the Far East and Hokkaido was practically undefended and as it was, indefensible. To move military forces northward plans were drawn up to create a central highway through the island.

Prisons had been established in Hokkaido in 1881 as part of the colonization scheme. Kentaro Kaneko, Chief Secretary of the Grand Council of State (Secretary to the Prime Minister) recommended sending prisoners northward to carry out labor-intensive projects such as road work, construction, farming and mining under conditions deemed too arduous for normal citizens. Since no one would care if a pack of murderers and hardened criminals died performing a public service, Kaneko argued any deaths would have the added benefit of lessening the government’s expenses making this a golden opportunity. After serving out their sentences, the survivors could be released into the local population to bolster pioneer numbers.

A product of this initiative was the Abashiri temporary prison quarters which was established near a fishing village in 1890. It would act as a base camp for the initial 1,200 prisoners used to clear the land and lay the northernmost 162.7 km of road. The project was undertaken at a dangerous, break-neck pace and was completed in eight months at the cost of 211 lives, both guards and prisoners. But, soldiers and pioneers could now be sent northward.

In total, Hokkaido prisoners would build 724 km of road.

Japan’s northernmost prison became permanent and a modern prison house, a copy of Belgium’s Leuven Prison, was built in 1912. When it was deemed obsolete in the 1980s nearly the entire prison complex was moved to a new spot about a mile away and the old one reopened as a museum. As one of the oldest wooden prisons in the world many of its buildings are important or tangible cultural properties.

I’d intended to arrive at opening time, but was half an hour late. The local bus doesn’t think it odd that tourists would want to be dropped off at the current, active Abashiri Prison and not the museum. We called a cab and I made a mental note to always be very clear when wanting to see a prison museum.

Arriving at the correct destination we passed under the seemingly manned (mannequined?) guard towers and after getting our tickets faced down the intimidating red brick main gate, though the festive kadomatsu New Year’s decorations did kind of dampen the intimidation factor. (Since we visited the day after New Year’s the whole prison had festive touches all over. Kind of weird, but a fun touch.)

Beyond the gates we entered the functional walled village that was Abashiri Prison. As an isolate prison in an inhospitable country Abashiri was entirely self-sufficient, able to be cut off from the outside world almost indefinitely. It has a farm complex, workshops for metal working, storehouses (that give a crash course on the history of miso and soy), a prayer hall, bathhouse and living quarters for guard and their families. All of these facilities, most of which are original with a few reproductions to fill in gaps, are present and all spaces furnished and equipped with prisoner and guard mannequins giving Abashiri a “live” feeling that illustrated what that it was like not so long ago. This was complimented by bilingual signage which ably told each story.

The centerpiece of this village is the radial five-wing prison house. I found the design fascinating, its rows upon row of gloomy cells lining long, narrow halls illuminated by sky lights gave an impression of oppressive orderliness. Walking the ward like a guard I could see into each cell through the diagonally slated cell walls, designed so guards could see in but prisoners couldn’t see across or into other cells. Even when surrounded by hundreds of others, each man was practically alone or with just a few others.

Adding to the miserable atmosphere was the cold. Even bundled up we still felt it. For prisoners, there was little protection and no escape from sub-zero temperatures that could freeze and rot a nose off in a night. If not for the loin-clothed man in rafters this place would seem downright inescapable.

Most wings were communal, holding several inmates, but the solitary ward housed the most dangerous and unruly offenders and has the prison’s most colorful story. Near his open cell is Yoshie Shiratori, the “Showa Era Escape King,” climbing the rafters to freedom. Shiratori broke out of three prisons four times, each time using a different, inventive method such as using his salty miso soup to weaken and break his handcuffs and cell bars. He can be heard giving a jovial interview near the prison house’s entrance. A few cells were open so we could go inside and take pictures of our locked up spouses… I mean think about how horrible it would have been to live here.

When visiting I recommend following the tour route on Abashiri’s map and beginning with the administrative building.  Its information center fleshes out the basics of Abashiri’s story and gives it context within the broader Hokkaido prison and colonization plans. The display panels are very helpful and easy to understand; the Warden’s Tale, a presentation by the “warden” on a screen from behind his desk talks about the hardships of Abashiri’s early days. Despite what they were, the prisoners are spoken of respectfully for the many works they accomplished and how it paved the way for Japan’s northward expansion. Everything in there is in English, Chinese and Russian as well as Japanese.

Abashiri has a purpose-built Penacological Museum as well which covers the whole of Abashiri Prison history to today with little interactive and recreated scene corners, including a recreation of the modern prison ward so that visitors can compare what Abashiri is like now versus 30 years ago when the radial prison house was still in operation. It’s a night and day difference in living conditions, but neither one I’d like to experience.

Highlights are the interactive early days section where I tried on a blaze orange kimono-like prison uniform and wicker hat, had my ball and chain put on an actual ball and chain and got woken from my comfy wood bed by her banging a stick against the log pillow. There’s also an immersive video theater where we watched the story of the road construction unfold. This was also multilingual. For most areas overview sheets are available to take and read that explain in broad strokes what you’re looking at.

We came on a clear January day when the ground and prison were covered in a heavy white layer of snow and few people were around to spoil the scenery. We spent about five hours exploring the prison, taking the time visit every building, read every panel and stopping to briefly enjoy coffee.

Since we came the first week of January the cafeteria was closed. I regret that we couldn’t try the prison meals in the old cafeteria, which was built in 1896. The souvenir shop café in the administrative building was open and served coffee with small sweet snacks.

Entry fee was 1080 yen and tickets come with a small wooden souvenir prison access tag. Our hotel also had free 10% discount coupons at the front desk but the coupon can also be downloaded and printed out from the museum’s website:

We came to Abashiri from Sapporo via limited express train which took about five and a half hours. The museum has a bus stop, Hakubutsukan Abashiri Kangoku, though taxis from the train station or downtown are reasonably priced.

Abashiri Prison Museum
Address: 1-1, Aza Yobito, Abashiri, Hokkaido, Japan, 099-2421
Tel: 0152-45-2411

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