postcard #15. shopping

CAPIC Showroom, Tokyo, July 2015

The anxiety-inducing possibility that there is nothing left to buy

Prisons in Japan have their own stores attached wimg_3733here it is possible to buy products made by the inmates. These are run by CAPIC (Correctional Association Prison Industry Cooperation) which also has a showroom in the Nakano suburb of Tokyo. A wide range of other items – shoes, clothes, furniture, notepads, udon noodles – can also be purchased. All the objects available to purchase in the showroom, woodwork, notepads, shoes lend themselves in one way or another to crude humour about prison life not least of all the bar of soap in its evocation of prison rape and by-product of the Nazi concentration camps.



Unlike U.S. prisons where work is presented as a privilege to an increasingly warehoused, unwanted labour force, in Japan it is compulsory, essential to an ideology of rehabilitation based on individual discipline and productivity. Objects produced through prison labour in the U.S. are often distributed and sold in such a way as to conceal the modes of production involved due to public hostility towards prison labour. Such hostility manifests from both the right and the left. From one political perspective prison labour takes jobs from law-abiding citizens by undercutting wages, from another, prison labour is exempt from minimum wages, union regulation and other legal regulations affecting places of work and thus constitutes a form of exploitation. On a visit to Attica in 2012, I was told by a Correctional Officer that the large, metal cabinets made in the prison workshop were assembled elsewhere, effectively concealing the supply chain in order to avoid problems with the unionized institutions including universities which tended to purchase them. In Japan, however, the products of contemporary prison labour are openly flaunted and sold as edgy consumerism and original souvenirs. For example, CNN Travel’s blog post on the store bears the title ‘Japanese crafts at criminal prices’ pitching the prison-made goods against mass-produced merchandise imported from China. Such a narrative of authentic Japanese merchandise is interesting given the use of prison-labour in Japan (and the U.S.) in building part of the country’s infrastructure. Unlike in the U.S. where clear links are made between slavery and the chain gang, the contribution of prison labour to the building of Japan and its colonial project in Hokkaido is openly affirmed rather than glossed over.

img_3732 Both narratives of warehousing and rehabilitative work involve a form of social cleansing embodied in the bar of inmate-made soap – advertised as the Nakano store’s ‘bestselling’ item. If such cleansing seems to be directed at the invisible inmates caught up in what Angela Davis and others have called the ‘prison industrial complex’, the purchase of a bar of soap or, indeed, the patronage of any material or cultural object produced by or through the labour and suffering of those incarcerated, surely represents a consciously planned cleansing of public conscience. The CNN blog reassures its right-leaning Western readers that they need not fear profits from sales going directly to criminals, emphasizing that a portion of the profits are given to victim support groups. The systematic implementation of prison labour programmes across Japan’s prisons depends not on an equivalent systematic recognition of the need to provide training and rehabilitation to those incarcerated or indeed an acknowledgment of the wider socio-economic structures underpinning much criminal activity. Rather, it is predicated on the idea of individual debts to be paid off by productive labour combined with the personal charity of individual purchasing power.


Moreover, passive complicity with the carceral becomes active consumerism at the same time as the contemporary, working prison is rendered museum via its production, display and sale of collectible objects. The bar of soap is a fetish which ironically acquires its value not from its ability to clean or even from its claimed role in the rehabilitation of those locked-up but precisely because it has been made a commodity by those locked-up. The bar of soap is imbued with the aura of the criminal body and his or her fulfilled potential for transgression.

According to an article in The Japan Times, in 2003 a furniture company was exposed for selling products featuring a forged version of the ‘CAPIC’ made-in-prison logo. Use of the forged seals had apparently been adopted to boost sales. Customers believed that the relatively low prices of CAPIC-produced furniture indicated higher quality materials offset against low labour costs. Most inmates are sentenced to ‘imprisonment with labour’ meaning that work in prison is indissociable from punishment and rehabilitation. Interestingly, the article reported that the punishment for the owner of the furniture company was a ban from prison trade fairs rather than a criminal sentence. Such a ban together with the owner’s confession to ‘being tempted’ by the success of the CAPIC-made products maintains the aura around the products and their mode of production.

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