From as early as the 1780s, Japan’s penal system gradually began to shift from punishment to reform, and prison labor gained in importance as a means to teach convicts a usable trade or skill. Even as recently as 2010, according to government figures, 68.3% of the individuals in prisons were “of no occupation” at the time of their incarceration. By teaching them a useful trade while they served their sentence, it was hoped they would find employment and fit in better as responsible members of society upon their release.
Nikkei Business (Dec 10) reports that in the past, much of the prison labor involved producing such home furnishings as chests of drawers, dining tables, reception room ensembles (composed of chairs, sofas, coffee tables), and also making shoes. The various prisons around Japan also specialized in different types of goods, which were offered to the public at various events.
Thanks to the “extremely low” costs paid for the labor, such goods were cheap—perhaps half the price of similar furnishings produced on the outside. And their quality was reasonably satisfactory, so prison-made items enjoyed relatively good reception in consumer markets.
Unfortunately, the designs failed to keep up with current preferences, and particularly younger purchasers found the image of owning something made in a prison to be rather unappealing.
In the decade between 2002 and 2011, sales of prison-made goods declined by nearly half, from about 8.1 billion to 4.5 billion yen. A key factor for this decline was due to the economic recession taking place “outside the walls.” Small and medium-sized businesses making competing products began to teeter, and more Japanese companies began sourcing their products from southeast Asia, with its lower labor costs.
For various changes related to lifestyles and demographics, moreover, demand for furniture in Japan has continued to fall. For instance, fewer young people means fewer marriages, and hence fewer recipients for wedding gifts. And with price deflation ongoing, prison-made goods are no longer able to undersell the competition.
Prison workshops were willing to change to more appealing products, but lacked the capital to invest in new equipment. Rather than jobs that helped convicts develop useful skills, more prisons were forced to accept menial jobs such as pasting the bottoms of paper bags in order to keep the workers occupied.
But one has got to give Japanese credit for entrepreneurial acumen—even the Bureau of Corrections. Take the new “Hello Kitty” Daruma plush toys being produced at Kurobane Prison in Otawara City, Tochigi Prefecture. Developed in cooperation with Sanrio Corp, the toys are said to be selling well. At the penitentiary for juveniles in Hakodate City, a new “Marugoku Series” of products—with a distinctive logos bearing the character “goku” (prison) within a circle—has gone on the market, with retro-styled aprons, tote bags, accessory cases and others—that offer a stylishly naughty design at affordable prices.
Word of the goods spread by mouth and the Marugoku line has become quite popular. Sales since their introduction in 2008 have surpassed 52,000 items, which brought in revenues of about 60 million yen.
“The Marugoku Series was not something subcontracted from an outside company but originated as our own in-house brand,” an official at the Bureau of Corrections told the magazine. “This has helped to raise the prisoners’ morale, and has done a good job of boosting the prison labor force.”
The total number of people serving prison terms in Japan (as of the end of 2010) was 63,845. By comparison, Japan’s largest employer is Toyota Motor Co, with 69,000 workers. From the business standpoint, the 4.5 billion yen in revenues from prison-made goods seems small. But if the discharged prisoners bring their new skills to the labor force, a favorable impact on the economy can be expected. By generating “hit” products, the prisoners can take pride in their work, and in themselves, and hopefully avoid recidivism. In its own small way, their labors may be helping to give themselves a better future.
For those with mailing addresses in Japan who would like to shop for a unique prison-made Christmas gift, with all major credit cards accepted, the “capic” online shop can be accessed at: