Abashiri prison museum, Hokkaido, July 2015
It’s taken me a long time to get around to posting on this, mainly because of how extensive the museum is. Back in January this year (2018), I presented some thoughts on the prison museum as part of the Prison Cultures event organised by Maryse Tennant at Canterbury ChristChurch.
Below is a concise version of these:
To travel to Abashiri is like taking a train to the edge of the world. 3 hours into the journey from Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city famous for its eponymous beer and hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics, the train comes to the end of the line and stops briefly before almost doubling back on itself as it heads down towards Abashiri. Everyone in the carriage swivels their seats around so as to remain travelling forwards. There is no need to go backwards and the story of Hokkaido and the convict labour that developed its present day economy and infrastructure is only ever told in terms of progress.
Abashiri is located on the Eastern coast of Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island. It is 43km from the maritime border with Russia. It was to secure against the threat of Russian invasion in the mid-19th century that Japan seized control of Hokkaido from the indigenous Ainu population as part of what is known as Japan’s ‘inland territorial expansionism’.
Convict labour was co-opted to the development of Hokkaido’s infrastructure and mining. Political prisoners were sent to Abashiri during the Meiji era. Winter conditions were particularly harsh for the convicts carrying out logging and road building work. The prison’s remote location and severe reputation have inspired a number of martial arts films including most famously the 1965 Abashiri Bangaichi. As such Abashiri like Alcatraz or Devil’s Island belongs to a popular imaginary of incarceration and it is important to situate public interest in the prison museum within this cultural context.
To enter the gates of the prison museum in Abashiri, visitors must first walk across a small footbridge known as the ‘mirror’ bridge. Newly convicted prisoners, we are told, would cross the bridge on their way to serve their sentence. They would be expected to pause to look into the water and on seeing their reflection, reflect on their crimes.
In this way visitors are invited, it seems, to follow in the footsteps trodden by those who once served time in the prison. Except that this rite of passage happened elsewhere. The bridge is a miniature replica of the one that leads prisoners across the Abashiri River to the actual prison, still in operation today as a maximum security facility. Instead of the glittering, flowing waters of the river that links the Sea of Okhotsk to Lake Abashiri, with all the possibilities for redemption via the passage of time this evokes, visitors are invited to seek out their own reflections in a large pond largely obscured by lily pads.
To put it bluntly, Abashiri prison museum is a fake, a simulacrum of the real prison, located a mile or so away on the other side of the river. If the museum’s mirror bridge fails to convince us we are entering the grounds of the prison, its entrance gate does better as a near perfect facsimile of the one found across the river. Yet to call the museum a fake is not quite accurate. Since around 1985 many of the buildings which originally date from 1912 have been dismantled from the original site and reconstructed or reassembled at the museum site. This includes, most impressively, the 5-wing radial prison building. Temporary buildings and structures that formed part of the Futamigaoka prison farm located in Western Abashiri, have also been relocated to the museum grounds as has the old but nevertheless more recent regional courtroom building which dates from 1952.
The significance of Abashiri prison museum has less to do with debates around the authenticity of the site. Instead, I would suggest that this unusual museum provides a counter-example to many of the assumptions we might make about prison heritage sites – not least in acknowledging it as a site which is unprecedented in both its scope and its approach to penal history. The architecture and artifacts on display have much in common with historic 19th and 20th century prison museums found in the UK and elsewhere. However, unlike sites elsewhere which offer a more critical framing of transportation and convict labour, at Abashiri the dominant narrative and, indeed, raison d’être for the museum consists of an open acknowledgment of the link between convict labour and colonialism. As the ‘Purpose of the Foundation’s Establishment’ statement presented at the entrance to the museum indicates, the use of convict labour in colonial expansion is identified as something positive and to be celebrated rather than either denied or regretted:
‘Abashiri Prison was established in Abashiri Village in 1890. A decade later in 1900, Abashiri Local Court was founded in the village.
The penal institution and the judicial facility in this rural setting have played individual roles in carving out a history for the area. With criminals judged according to the Law and atoning for their offenses at the prison, Abashiri has worked to redress crime and pursue justice. Following the relocation and restoration of the old structures of the facility, the Foundation aims to publicly honor the achievements of this Hokkaido prison as part of the prefecture’s development as well as to preserve related administrative materials. It is also the Foundation’s objective to contribute to the development of Hokkaido’s education and culture through the storage and exhibition of these artifacts.’
While this offers much insight into the ongoing stakes of Japan’s internal colonial expansionism, I wonder if can also tell us something more about less explicit statements found about the relationship between convict labour, transportation and colonial development – for example in exhibitions in both the UK and Australia focused on the legacy of transportation. What would it mean to posit this as a more critical question? While the ‘Purpose’ statement draws our attention to the role of the prison museum in nation-state building in Japan, how might similar or even more ambiguous statements found elsewhere be challenged as pushing a neocolonial agenda in relation to postcolonial sites and their preservation and development as heritage?
Many prison museums in their exposition of the daily lives of former inmates, show how inmates were occupied and often include narratives of the self-sufficiency of the prison as a result of inmate labour. In Abashiri, the prison is not simply presented as self-sufficient but, rather, as maintaining the economy of the entire local region. The museum acts as a testament to agricultural production as much as it does to architectural innovation. The history of the prison is also a history of agriculture, industry, technology and architecture.
Yet where are the prisoners’ voices, their stories, their experiences in all this? What was it like to do time and hard labour in Abashiri and its surrounds. The silence of the mannequins used to depict the convicts is deafening. Their presence is ubiquitous throughout the multiple buildings and exhibition spaces of the museum yet there are only 2 convict narratives that I was able to identify.
- The first is a description of the bitter cold of the prison cells taken from ‘18 years in Prison’ published in 1947 by Kyuichi Tokuda and Yoshio Shiga.
- The second is the story of Long Nail Torakichi presented in cartoon form. Long Nail escaped from Abashiri and managed to run 10km before being caught despite stepping on a 5 inch nail. After multiple prison escapes, he became a model prisoner and on release toured the country with heartwarming tales of his time in prison. The cartoon version has him reflect nostalgically on his time in Abashiri. He has been given his own personalized mannequin outside the main entrance – a mascot of sorts who affirms the ultimate success of the prison system against a wayward inmate.
I wonder how this very deliberate practice of silencing and limiting of convict narratives at Abashiri might this lead us to reexamine the use of convict narratives elsewhere. This is also something that occurs via the privileging of certain, celebrity voices above other more ordinary inmates? The ubiquity of the mannequins reminds of this prison population and its lack of voice, more perhaps than exhibitions dedicated to Oscar Wilde or Al Capone.