Japan Prison Guards to Use Honorific “San” When Addressing Inmates; Measure Aimed at Curbing Human Rights Abuses

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Justice Ministry

Staff at prisons across Japan will soon use the honorific suffix “san” when addressing inmates in most cases, as part of the Justice Ministry’s efforts to prevent abuse of inmates by prison staff.

A third-party panel of experts, set up following revelations that guards at Nagoya Prison had repeatedly assaulted inmates, found that the abuse arose in part because the guards “lacked awareness of human rights.” The ministry on Thursday released details of efforts to prevent such abuse, and revealed that guards would be required to address prisoners by their names followed by “san” beginning in April.

From November 2021 to September 2022, 22 correctional officers at Nagoya Prison assaulted and mistreated three inmates on at least 400 occasions. Thirteen of these guards were referred to prosecutors on suspicion of assault and cruelty by specialized public employees, as well as on other charges, but the cases against all the guards were dropped in September.

In recommendations made in June, the panel pointed out that staff conversing with each other at Nagoya Prison referred to inmates with the term “convict” or a rough way of saying “those guys.” The panel stated that a poor understanding of human rights and other problems were common at prison facilities across Japan and called for a ban on derogatory names for inmates, as well as a ban in principle on using names without the honorific suffix.

“We will change the relationship between staff and inmates, which has been one of confrontation,” a senior ministry official said.

In addition to the review of how inmates are addressed, a total of 68 policies aimed at preventing abuse of inmates have been put forward, including having prison guards wear small cameras and reviewing the content of training programs. As of the end of December, about three-quarters of these polices were reportedly at the trial stage or had been implemented.