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Proxy Punishment: Consequences of Informal Sanctions among Families of Offenders In Japan

Published onJun 01, 2018
Proxy Punishment: Consequences of Informal Sanctions among Families of Offenders In Japan


This study demystifies the nature of societal reactions to crime in Japan and their consequences on the family members of those who have trouble with the law. Over a 20-month period in metropolitan areas in Japan, participant observation and in-depth interviews were conducted with 50 mothers, fathers, wives, and sisters of those who had broken the law. Major findings include the role that the media and criminal justice authorities play in triggering the informal labeling of offenders’ kin. Families’ strong ties to communities also rendered them particularly vulnerable to the effects of informal sanctions, even more so than offenders themselves. Finally, this study reveals ironies of Japan’s low crime rate and its use of informal sanctions, highlighting the fundamental importance of offender rehabilitation and reentry.


An increasing amount of attention has been paid to the collateral consequences of formal sanctions, specifically incarceration, and the hardships experienced by the family members of prisoners (Chesney-Lind & Mauer, 2003; Hagan & Dinovitzer, 1999; Murray, 2007; Travis & Waul, 2004). However, less is known about the collateral consequences of informal sanctions experienced by the families of offenders. Although there is a growing body of literature on the shame and stigma experienced by relatives of prisoners and offenders, virtually no studies have examined how families come to perceive such informal sanctions. Similarly, the labeling theory literature lacks research on the processes of informal labeling and how it interacts with formal labeling (Bernburg, 2009, 2010). Though numerous scholars have argued that informal sanctions are more potent than formal sanctions as both a deterrent and source of criminality (Braithwaite, 1989; Paternoster & Iovanni, 1986; Zimring & Hawkins, 1973), less has been said about the consequences of informal sanctions on those closest to offenders.

It is a well-known fact that Japan relies heavily on informal means of social control, namely reintegrative shaming and restorative justice, to maintain social order (Braithwaite, 1989; Haley, 1995, 1996). Due to this cultural characteristic, Japan is an ideal location to examine the repercussions informal sanctions have on offenders’ families, although scholars have contested the society’s reintegrative or restorative nature (Miyazawa, 1997). The fact that Japan experiences much less crimes than its Western counterparts also renders it an interesting site to investigate societal reactions to crime. This study examines offenders’ families in Japan where the informal means of social control are prevalent and crime is uncommon to shed light on the mechanisms of informal sanctions and their consequences.

Shame and stigma among families of offenders/prisoners

Previous studies on the intimates and family members of prisoners in the West have highlighted the families’ experiences of shame and stigma due to their close proximity to prisoners (Arditti, 2003; Arditti, Lambert-Shute, & Joest, 2003; Girshick, 1996). Central to these studies is Goffman’s notion of courtesy stigma (Condry, 2007), which is defined as the stigma that attaches and extends to those who are associated with stigmatized individuals (Goffman, 1986, p. 30). Expanding this notion, researchers have argued that, in the case of serious offenses such as murder, not only does stigma extend, but it also implies that families have responsibility for causing the offense, which creates a new form of stigma they must endure (Condry, 2007; May, 2000). Previous studies of prisoners’ wives in the U.S. have also found that the wives’ experiences of stigmatization largely originated from their interactions with criminal justice authorities rather than their communities (Comfort, 2003; L. T. Fishman, 1990). While a larger body of literature exists on how the relatives of prisoners and offenders experience shame and stigma, virtually no studies have examined the processes through which families come to perceive informal, societal responses to crime.

In Japan, stigma has also been a primary focus in the limited but illuminating literature on the family members of offenders. Steinhoff (2008) vividly documents how the family members of political offenders faced severe condemnation from the public along with offenders themselves. One of the members of a New Left group responsible for a series of time bomb attacks in the mid-1970s in Tokyo recalled, “One morning after a snowfall, the snow was mounded up in front of our house and a pile of dog dung was left in it with the word ‘hikokumin’ (traitor) (Cited in Steinhoff 2008: 98).” When a serious crime such as this is committed in Japan, the news media broadcasts names and addresses of not only convicts but also suspects to facilitate community hostility. Terrified of being identified, families often relocate, switch jobs, transfer schools, and/or avoid public spaces as a result. They also fear any sort of news media or even popular media that remind them of their kin’s crime and thus, make a conscious effort to avoid them (Abe, 2015; Suzuki, 2010). Although the previous studies show that negative or inaccurate news coverage could foster hostile societal reactions toward offenders’ kin (Beck, Britto, & Andrews, 2009; Sharp, 2005), virtually no Western or Japanese research has examined the role that the media play in the processes of stigmatization.

Modified labeling theory and reintegrative shaming

To examine the families of prisoners/offenders and their experiences, this study draws from the modified labeling approach. One of the significant characteristics of  modified labeling theory is its emphasis on both actual and anticipated social rejection that labeled individuals face (Bernburg, 2009). Elaborating on Scheff’s (1966) radical application of secondary deviance to mental illness, Link and colleagues (1989) highlighted that “Patients’ expectations of rejection are an outcome of socialization and the cultural context rather than a pathological state associated with their psychiatric condition” (p. 403). Assuming that individuals adopt societal views about mental illness regardless of whether they are mentally ill, Link and colleagues (1989) further noted that the labeled individuals use “secrecy, withdrawal, and education” to deal with the public’s responses. Applying the modified labeling approach to societal reactions to crime seems ideal because it not only recognizes the families’ anticipated and actual experiences of stigma, but also addresses informal labeling, which is a major gap in the labeling literature (Bernburg, 2009, 2010).

Another theoretical framework that is instrumental in understanding the public’s reactions to crime in Japan is Braithwaite’s (1989) reintegrative shaming. According to Braithwaite, Japan is the quintessential reintegrative society that “label[s] the act as evil while striving to preserve the identity of the offender as essentially good” (1989, p. 102). He also argued that those with stronger ties to conventional institutions suffer more damage from informal sanctions than those with weaker connections. This thesis is critically important to the current study in two ways.

First, it provides a framework to appreciate and analyze positive societal reactions to crime such as forgiveness and acceptance. While the majority of past research has focused on families’ passive experiences of shame and stigma, positive consequences of crime, including the efforts to foster resilience by the families themselves, need to be documented (Condry, 2007). Second, because reintegrative shaming was formulated based on Braithwaite’s’ observations of Japan, this study is well-suited to test the concept (Miyazawa, 1997). Given the criticisms of the conception of a “restorative” or “reintegrative” Japan (Aldous & Frank, 2000; Fujimoto & Park, 1994; D. T. Johnson, 2002; Miyazawa, 1997; Nelken, 1998), this study investigates families of offenders and their experiences so as to demystify the nature of Japan’s societal reactions to crime.


Participant observation and in-depth interviews

Throughout the 20 months of my field research from January 2014 to August 2015, I spent more than 140 hours listening and observing at the family circle meetings held by four different organizations, respectably supporting the family members of drug addicts, juvenile delinquents, and those who committed other types of crime (i.e. violent crime, property crime, and sex crime). By attending these meetings, I collected basic background information of the participants and selected potential interviewees. I used purposive sampling to choose those who had any interactions with criminal justice authorities. In the early stage of data collection, however, I noticed that new attendees who had recently discovered their kin’s crime had difficulty sharing their feelings and thoughts in front of others. In order to avoid potentially exploiting these at-risk family members (Beck & Britto, 2006), I decided not to interview newcomers. Instead, I relied on participant observation, an unobtrusive and unthreatening method (Adler & Adler, 1994), to collect the narratives of the new attendees. By using participant observation in conjunction with interviews, I was able to avoid skewing the study’s results by merely including the accounts of long-term attendees.

Due to my regular presence at family circle meetings, I gathered various information of each family prior to the interviews, such as the family structure, the offenders’ current criminal justice status, and the family members’ mental states. Based on these observational data, I was able to adjust my interview guide accordingly and avoid dwelling on the details of crimes committed, which could have been retraumatizing for some family members (Beck & Britto, 2006). Although I did not record any narratives at the meetings, I took extensive field notes after each family circle. Included in the filed notes were facts about each prisoner’s offense, details on the criminal justice process, the family members’ responses. In addition, I wrote down how the participants told their stories, including their facial expressions, body language, and group interactions.

The interviews took the form of intensive interviewing, which encourages participants to reflect on earlier events and share their significant experiences as experts (Charmaz, 2006, pp. 25-27). Prior to conducting the interviews, I explained to each participant the purpose of my study and informed them that their personal information would be kept confidential and their names anonymous. Furthermore, I reminded all interviewees that they could skip any questions at any time. On average, the interviews lasted for two to two and a half hours. With interviewee’s permission, I recorded interviews with a digital voice recorder. It has to be noted, however, that two participants expressed uneasiness about being recorded. In these cases, I took extensive notes upon obtaining the interviewees’ permission. Interviews were semi-structured and thus, there was no fixed questionnaire, although I had specific ideas about what I wanted to know (Hesse-Biber, 2007). Those ideas included the interactions with the authorities, society and the media, stress and emotions, and the gendered world of offender support activities. I asked broad, open-ended questions that covered a range of topics that related to their lives before and after their kin’s crime. My rationale for using this type of interviewing technique was to avoid potentially retraumatizing and exploiting the families (Beck & Britto, 2006). All interviews were conducted and transcribed in Japanese. The study participant’s quotes were also translated from Japanese to English by the author whose first language is Japanese, retaining the speaker’s exact tones and nuances. To ensure the confidentiality of the participants, all names were changed to pseudonyms while transcribing interviews and transferring field notes to Microsoft Word documents.


In total, I observed 50 family members at family circles, 31 of which I interviewed. Study participants include 34 mothers (68%), 7 wives (14%), 6 fathers (12%), and 3 sisters (6%), which reflects a clear predominance of women in the field of prisoner and offender support activities (Comfort, 2008; Condry, 2007). All participants were of 35-years of age and up and the eldest was in their late-70s. More than half of the women participants were working or had just started to work full-time or part-time during field research, while the remaining were either homemakers or receiving a pension. All men participants except one were working full-time.

Every participant had at least one experience of interacting with law enforcement, such as being questioned and or searched due to their kin’s possible law-breaking behavior. All except five family members (90%) experienced their kin’s arrest and 34 participants (68%) experienced their kin’s incarceration, including juvenile prisons and training schools (7 parents). Table 1 shows the types of crime conviction or charges brought against participants’ kin, including sex offense (28%), drug offense (22%), fraud (10%), property crime (8%), murder (8%), assault (6%), other (4%1), and unknown crime (4%). These are the most recent criminal accusations or convictions that the participants could recall.

Table 1. Type of offense committed by kin



Sex offense



Drug offense





















No arrest






Data analysis

This study is grounded in the literatures on prisoners’ families, the collateral consequences of incarceration, and informal sanctions. These three literatures helped structure the interview guides and initial data analysis. In the initial stages of my analysis, I coded the interview transcripts and field notes for the families’ relationships to the offenders as well as the criminal justice system, paying close attention to the offenders’ accused crime, their historical involvement in the criminal justice system, and their current status in the criminal justice process. As new ideas and themes emerged, the original coding scheme expanded (Charmaz, 2006; Corbin & Strauss, 2014; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Line-by-line coding revealed repeated concepts such as “condemnation from the family and relatives,” “verbal attacks from neighbors,” and “anticipated community disdain.” Using axial coding, similar themes were then linked to develop analytical codes, including “perceived stigma,” “actual hostility,” and “techniques to overcome negative societal reactions.” To enhance the study’s validity, throughout data collection and analysis, I reviewed and revised the analytical codes and the interview guides to verify my interpretations of the obtained data with the study’s participants and practitioners (Charmaz, 2006; Lofland, Snow, Anderson, & Lofland, 2005). 


The fear of detection 

In this study, all participants, except for two parents of young substance users, expressed fear that their proximate communities would learn about their familial ties to offenders. Even long-term group members, those who most openly shared their experiences at family circles, were fearful of situations that could possibly reveal their status as family members of offenders. Kimiko, a veteran at the drug addicts’ family support group and the group for parents of delinquent youth, recounted her attempts to avoid public scrutiny visiting her son at the training school. She recalled:

[The training school] was located in the middle of nowhere. Even from the train station it costs about 5,000 yen ($50) by taxi to get there. You could take the bus but it’s a kind of bus that, um, has no stop buttons. I didn't even know that those buses were still running, but you would have to yell out, “I’m getting off here!” And the bus stop we wanted get off was called the Training School. The Training School … I just could not bring myself to say, “I’m getting off in front of the training school … !” And my husband never says it either. He’s only been there a few times but whenever he goes he makes me say it. So the first time I went, I could not tell the bus driver where my stop is and I got off at the next stop. But those buses aren’t like the ones over here, you know? I thought I would only have to walk back 200 or 300 meters. I ended up walking more than a half-hour in the mountains. That's when I thought, “This isn’t gonna work. Either I have to make myself say it or drive.”

The fear of detection and the need for secrecy reported by Kimiko and other study participants arose from the interplay between formal and informal labeling.

According to labeling theorists (Becker, 1963; Lemert, 1951), labeling through both formal and informal institutions defines crime. As Bernburg (2009) puts it, “Formal labeling, such as an arrest or a conviction, may have little or no impact on a person’s social status as long as it is kept secret from community members, employers, teachers, and so on” (p. 344). Similarly, family members of offenders are likely to experience less shame and stigma if their kin’s formal label as a criminal was concealed from the public.

The present study identified two ways in which the formal label became available to the public. Firstly, the official label was made public by the news media, allowing community members to make direct associations between the officially labeled individuals and their family members. Kohei recounted the aftermath of having his adult son’s arrest for fraud published in the media as follows:

My son was twenty-two at the time of arrest so his name and everything else were aired on the TV and radio. I am the youngest of five siblings and my eldest brother is a fairly well known journalist, employed as a lecturer at the time at [a prestigious university] in Tokyo. The second eldest was also a principle of a private all-girls high school. So when they found out about what my son had done on the TV, they indeed, blamed and criticized me and my wife, saying that we have failed as parents. We had to, um, apologize, deeply bowing in front of them and such. Oh, they were really, really harsh and it really made me feel ashamed as a parent.

Kohei’s experience speaks to a mechanism of labeling in which the publication of a formal label prompts informal labeling. Following the formal labeling of an individual through arrest, the media disseminate the official label to the public, triggering informal labeling that often extends to the family of the formally labeled. As a result, Kohei’s family felt that his negative celebrity threatened their social status so they blamed and condemned him. Such reaction from intimates could have significant emotional consequences, as it tends to be more potent than impersonal state shaming (i.e. negative interactions with criminal justice agents) (Braithwaite, 1989).

Secondly, a formally imposed label became publicized when members of society assumed there was a link between the criminal justice agents and the offenders’ family members due to gossip or witnessing interactions between the two. Thus, the family members were increasingly wary of others frequently seeing them with uniformed police officers and probation and parole officers in the neighborhood, as well as in the vicinity of correctional and judicial institutions. Masae became deeply disturbed when she found out that police detectives had asked her neighbors questions and distributed their name cards in an effort to arrest her drug-abusing son. She explained that although she did not mind being visited by the police as it had happened many times before, what bothered her was that the detectives were so obtrusive that they could have disturbed the neighbors and, more importantly, publicized her family member’s shameful association with the criminal justice system.

Moreover, of the 34 participants whose kin experienced incarceration, at least six expressed an awareness of trial observers and at times felt threatened by their presence. Asami spoke of her experience of going to her husband’s trial for a sex offense as follows:

When I went to [the court], there was coincidentally a hearing for [a very celebrated criminal case]. So the lobby was packed with people. At the reception, there were books that showed the schedule and location for all court hearings for the day. I remember being terrified of the people who were studying those books and taking notes. I was also scared of bumping into somebody I knew. So I was like this [covers the left side of her face with her hand] whenever somebody walked past the door of our courtroom. … I think there were about twelve, thirteen [observers] in total. There were even these really young people with dyed hair and backpacks, looking not so intelligent and out of place. I was like, “Who are these people?” … I would never want to go back to trials and things of that sort.

Zimring and Hawkins (1973) argue that “A criminal trial followed by conviction and sentencing can be seen as a public degradation ceremony, in which the public identity of the convicted individual is lowered on social scale” (p. 79). Indeed, these family members perceived going to a trial as a stigmatizing experience rather than as an opportunity to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice. Saeko, the mother of a repeat sex offender whose case was tried under the lay-judge system,2 said she dreaded testifying in court as a jojo shonin (character witness) and had lost four kilograms as a result of stress-induced appetite loss. But even those who did not appear in court as witnesses also expressed the uneasiness of seeing strangers in the courtroom. To them, these observers did not represent criminal justice officials or judicial experts, but rather curious lay people who could impose informal labels.

The accounts of the family members indicate that both the media and criminal justice system function as a means to publicize formal labels, which consequently enables community members to apply informal labels. Due to the high social visibility of criminal justice agents and establishments, such as police officers in uniforms, police cars, the courthouse, and the prison, they function as indicators that individuals are having trouble with the law. Thus, when family members come in contact with these symbols of criminal justice, they became extremely fearful of being seen as the same as the targets of crime control.

However, it’s important to note that when family members of offenders in Japan discussed their prison visitation experiences, stigmatization by the correctional officers was not a frequent topic of discussion. Although Western prisoners often discuss their experiences of being humiliated, stigmatized, and even abused by prison guards (Christian, 2005; Comfort, 2003; L. T. Fishman, 1990; Hannem, 2011), only a few study participants spoke of similar negative experiences. This might be due to the family members feeling less vulnerable to stigmatization inside the prison than when they were outside because they were sharing the space with those who experienced similar events. Indeed, Braman (2007) posits that when family members are outside of prison, they are less “protected” from societal reactions than those who are inside prison walls with peers who can provide sympathy and share frustration or anger. Echoing this conjecture, because participants typically exist outside prison walls, they are more likely to intensely experience informal rather than formal reactions to crime when compared to their offender family members who live within prison walls. 

Actual and anticipated community hostility

Previous literature on Japanese families of offenders has highlighted serious and extremely sensationalized cases that led to severe condemnation from the public and proximate communities (Abe, 2015; Steinhoff, 1999; Suzuki, 2010). In this study, this type of intense public hostility was not reported possibly due to the less serious nature of the crimes committed. However, study participants sometimes encountered actual hostility from those who were in a close proximity to them, such as other family members and relatives, next-door neighbors, and local community members. Ten family members reported such experiences, which typically involved verbal hostility from family and relatives.

According to Schwartz and Weinstraub (1974), the American wives of prisoners often feel torn between personal positive perceptions of their husbands and parents’ and in-laws’ negative perceptions. According to the wife’s parents, the husband represents the source of agony inflicted on their children and grandchildren, while the husband’s parents tend to see the wife as at least partially to blame for his deviant behavior. Paralleling these findings, three wives discussed such experiences in the current study. Naomi and Akari, whose husbands were arrested for fraud and sexual assault respectively, described how their husbands’ families blamed them for their husbands’ wrongdoing. Though not blamed by her in-laws, Asami recalled that, “[My mother] refers to my husband as ‘that man’ in front of my children. The youngest always catches it and gets uneasy. So I had to ask her to stop doing it and call him their daddy instead.” Despite facing dilemmas, as Fishman (1990) found in her study of prisoners’ wives in the U.S., the wives in the current study largely made an effort to maintain their children’s perception of the incarcerated men as fathers rather than criminals.

Both Takashi and Yasuyo were very concerned about the reactions of their local communities. Takashi’s son was incarcerated for a drug offense, but the relationship between his family and his nextdoor neighbors had already started to deteriorate prior to his incarceration, when the neighbors called the police on Takashi’s son for public disturbance. He also recalled that the daughter of his next-door family told him to “piss off” when he tried to greet her on the street. Yasuyo, whose son has been incarcerated for multiple counts of robbery, explained that even though her son tells her not to be bothered by it, she is convinced that the next-door family tries to avoid her whenever they see her on the street. Eight years following her son’s arrest, she explained:

My son tells me that we don't have to worry about what other people think because he has already made amends. But in Japan, you still have to be concerned about other people’s views. … In our neighborhood, I always wonder if people are looking at us with disdain. Our next-door neighbors are alert, too. They recently installed a security camera. I know I could go on and on worrying about things like this, but Japan is still a conservative society, you know? Like, you have to go on living, feeling small and ashamed. … Our house is old and we want to repair the damaged roof. But it is going to require scaffoldings and everything and be very noticeable. I'm afraid that the neighbors are going to judge us and say, 'I can't believe they have the audacity to fix their house after their son has done such a thing!'

The discrepancy in perceptions of stigma suggests that offenders and their families experience different types of stigma as a result of their different legal statuses. Because family members only experience informal labeling and sanctions due to their legal innocence, the stigma of criminality persisted with no indication that it would discontinue with release from prison for instance. While we know that ex-offenders experience a number of blatant and systematic consequences of formal sanctions, also known as “civil death” (Petersilia, 2003, pp. 136-137), family members experience the potent and enduring effects of informal punishment.

The difference in the understanding of public perceptions between offenders and their kin was a frequent topic discussed by study participants. Eight out of the 34 participants whose kin had experienced imprisonment discussed such disparity. At one family circle, Kanako burst into tears as she discussed her frustration and anger toward her incarcerated brother who asked her to publish his journals on the Internet to publicize the reality of Japanese detention centers. She harshly criticized him for being completely oblivious to the daily inconveniences and the fear of discovery that his family had to endure in their communities. In her study of Canadian wives of prisoners, Hannem (2011) argued that women are more susceptible to extended stigma due to the patriarchal concept that women’s identity is limited to their roles of spouse and/or mother. Hagan, Simpson, and Gills (1979) have also noted that social stratification renders women more susceptible to informal sanctions than men because “Women are denied full access to the public sphere through a socialization sequence that moves from mother to daughter in a cycle that is self-renewing” (p. 34). The women participants in this research indeed seemed more concerned about the effects of informal labeling and stigmatization on the family and themselves than their male counterparts or male offenders. The women particularly noted that they became increasingly wary of gossip when they went outside to grocery shop or take out the trash. While men could devote their time to work and evade extensive informal labeling, women were relegated to their households and communities due to gender role expectations and frequently faced cringe-inducing and potentially shameful moments outside their home. Although the women in this study continued to fulfill the socially ascribed role of caretakers to their offender and other family members (Girshick, 1996), their efforts to maintain the normalcy of family life were continuously ignored, undervalued, and exploited (Richie, 2002).


In alignment with modified labeling theory (Link et al., 1989), secrecy was indeed one of the prominent methods participants used to deal with stigma. Secrecy was, however, used in various forms, including deception, half-truths, and selective disclosure. In this study, the majority of family members reported that they concealed their kin’s law-breaking from their colleagues, with the exception of a few who informed their immediate bosses to get time off. When the study participants interacted with neighbors and acquaintances, they often withheld their kin’s information by not saying anything or telling half-truths. Yasuyo reported that she confided in one of her closest friends, but she explained that she purposefully selected a friend who lived a considerable distance away from her local community to avoid becoming the subject of local gossip.

Ten family members explained that they concealed their kin’s wrongdoing even from other immediate family members and close relatives. They often justified secrecy as necessary to safeguard other family members’ psychological and physiological well-being, especially when they were perceived as too young, old, or emotionally vulnerable. Mitsuko, whose husband was arrested for indecent exposure, maintained that she would never want her adult daughter to find out about his offense, although the rest of her children knew. She explained:

Both our sons know [about their father’s sex offense] but our daughter doesn’t. So I wouldn't want her and her husband to ever see [the media coverage]. I feel like everyone knows about it, but at least my daughter … I would never want her to discover because she loves her father so much. So I hope she doesn't ... find out, ever. … I contemplate divorce but supposedly I live here and my husband would have to go live with his parents. Then he has to tell them. He has told me never to disclose [his offense] to his mother or elder sister. So we never did. But I feel like, why am I the only one who has to suffer? I personally want to tell my sister-in-law at least but …

Prohibited by her husband to inform her in-laws, Mitsuko was forced to live in an intricate web of familial secrets, feeling the burden of keeping the information all to herself. Yasuyo managed not to let her mother, who was then hospitalized and now deceased, discover her grandson’s arrest and incarceration by convincing her that he was working abroad. While it is unknown if her mother ever found out about the offense, Yasuyo firmly believed that letting her mother pass away without the knowledge of her grandson’s criminal history was one of the few good decisions that she made regarding her son’s offending.

Findings highlight a careful selection process employed by the offenders’ family members to determine when, to whom, and how much they disclose about their kin’s offending. As noted previously, formal labeling becomes problematic when it is revealed to the public (Bernburg, 2009). Secrecy allowed the family members to have autonomy and control over the amount of information the public has about their kin’s criminality, and thus, enabled them to resist informal labeling. According to Scheppele (1988), secrecy represents a means of wielding power, “wrenching advantage from the unknowing actions of others” (p. 5). In regards to deception, similarly, Simmel (1906) argued that “[t]he lie that succeeds—that is, which is not seen through—is without doubt a means of bringing mental superiority to expression, and of enabling it to guide and subordinate less crafty minds” (p. 446). Thus, as Foucault (1980) reminds us of the inseparable nature of knowledge and power, the techniques shown above were used not only to curtail stigma but also to control knowledge and reassume power, which participants had often been often deprived of in the midst of chaotic and unfamiliar criminal justice procedures.

Scheppele (1988) further noted that “[t]he secrecy is the social mechanism through which the interest and intentions of particular social actors, making decisions in their daily lives, become translated into inequalities in knowledge” (p. 23). When secrecy was employed during interactions with the public, family members used the knowledge imbalance as a source of power—which was once taken away by the criminal justice system—to shield themselves from labeling. However, when secrecy was employed within the family, the knowledge inequality harmed the uninformed by depriving them of a possible source of autonomy. In this study, daughters, young children, and the elderly were often excluded from the whole criminal justice process and given distorted and misleading explanations about disturbances in the family. Previous studies have demonstrated that deception can have detrimental effects on the children of prisoners in terms of behavioral, emotional, and cognitive adjustment (Lowenstein, 1986; Schwartz & Weintraub, 1974). Moreover, these children are often aware of the facts despite adults misinforming them (S. H. Fishman & Cassin, 1981). Due to the sampling frame limitations, this study was not able to assess the repercussions of familial secrets on children and adult relatives of offenders. Nonetheless, findings suggest that secrecy is a tool of power afforded only to some, debilitating unwitting family members through disparate sharing of knowledge due to their gender, age, and/or ableness.

Revealing secrets and separating from stigma

So far, the narratives of the study participants have highlighted the kind of shaming that is neither terminated by society nor followed by the gesture of forgiveness, which points to the fact that Japan is no more reintegrative than other societies. However, the family members did discuss their experiences encountering gestures of acceptance from others, albeit much less often. Such instances of reintegrative shaming occurred when the family members were dissociated from the crime committed by their kin. Kohei explained at the first Parent-Teacher Association meeting he attended after his son’s case was broadcast on television that he had no reason to feel sorry or shameful because his son, not he, had committed the crime, and he was grateful to those who sympathized and consoled him. The gestures of acceptance were expressed not only verbally, but also through the simple act of maintaining relationships with the family members even after the discovery of the incident. Kohei and at least four other parents of offenders reported that they felt great relief and gratitude when their children’s significant others expressed understanding and compassion upon learning the discrediting fact about their family.

According to Braithwaite (1989), decertifying deviance or de-labeling is a fundamental aspect of reintegrative shaming. In a reintegrative society, the deviant label will be removed from offenders upon punishment and shaming before it becomes their master identity. In this study, shaming was so potent and long-lasting, that family members disengaged themselves from the stigma of criminality to end the labeling and shaming. Haruko, a mother of a drug offender and one of the founders of a drug addicts’ family support group near Tokyo, recounted her first experience of attending a family circle 12 years ago as follows:

When I first went there, well, it was for families of drug users so I thought everyone there was like this [runs her finger across her cheek signifying a scar, indicating yakuza] or hostesses you see at the bar. So I was very, very scared [laughs]. Then when I went inside, I found out that they were actually, um, normal people. But when I was at the registration, people around me were saying stuff that didn't make any sense. They were like:

“Ah, my son got arrested again!”

“That’s good! If he’s in prison, he’s not using.” “My son is still missing.”

“If there’s still no word, that means he’s not dead!”

Hearing these things, I was like, “Wow, so scary ...” But, you see, they were all laughing … I couldn't even smile at that time, having thoughts like, “If only my daughter was dead … Maybe I should die with her, too ...” When I saw these people laughing so much, I thought, “Wait, maybe it is ok for me to live. Maybe it is ok for me to … laugh … as well. And I felt like I saw this faint light at the end of the tunnel.

By openly discussing and even laughing at their kin’s situations, the long-time members signified to Haruko that the current state of her daughter was no longer something to be hidden. Family circles prompted her to reduce self-stigma by asserting that being a drug offender’s family member is a significant part of her identity (Boling, 1996).

Another prominent aspect of her account is the display of a very limited and skewed understanding of crime. According to modified labeling theory, the labeled individuals internalize the same conceptions about deviance as the public through various means, such as the media, and that they perceive societal responses based on those internalized views (Link et al., 1989). For Haruko, who grew up in a middle-class household in the outskirts of Tokyo and is a dedicated registered nurse, illicit drug use was something so foreign and unfamiliar that she initially associated it only with those who occupied the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. This instance suggests that because crime is so uncommon in Japan, the public tends to hold very stereotypical and even stigmatizing views about lawbreaking, which may be internalized by the labeled. This process of self-stigmatization was reported frequently in this study. In fact, the distorted conceptions about deviance were not exclusive to Haruko or the other family members of drug offenders, but were similarly and unanimously expressed by most of the study participants who reported that it was a surprise to see people just like them in prison visiting rooms and family circle meetings.

To these family members, the family support groups served an educational purpose. They obtained accurate information about the nature of crime and the criminal justice system from peers and professionals, which fostered the process of de-stigmatization. Many also reported that family circles simply provided a place to cry. When their status as an offender’s family member is not socially recognized, they are deprived of space to express their complex set of emotions. Yasuyo, feeling out of place even at home where she lived with her husband and her son who was recently released, recalled that she used to frequently go to a public swimming pool in the next town prior to discovering a support group. When asked about the reason, she simply replied, “I used to cry while I swim. Others wouldn't notice it if I was crying underwater, you know?” Many study participants similarly explained that they used to come to the family circle just so they could cry. For those people, family circles represented not only an educational opportunity, but also a safe and protected place where they could disclose secrets and express their disenfranchised emotions without facing negative repercussions.


Irony of Japan’s low crime rate

Japan is a society that experiences remarkably less crime than its Western counterparts. For example, in 2014, the rates of adults brought into formal contact with the police and/or the criminal justice system in the United States and Japan were 4,134 and 190 per 100,000 respectively (UNODC, 2016). The U.S. adult incarceration rate is 612, whereas it is only 47 in Japan3 (Carson, 2015; Ministry of Justice, 2015). While it is a welcoming fact that Japan is considerably safer than other societies, the previous studies found that fewer occurrences of crime in communities has an inverse effect on the level of stigma perceived by offenders’ kin (L. T. Fishman, 1988; Schwartz & Weintraub, 1974). Hirschfield (2008) has also shown that labeling has a limited impact on the youths in crime-familiar communities where the label of a delinquent is neutralized. These studies point to the existence of a great irony in Japan: The low crime rate, which is supposed to help families thrive in a safe society, is what actually causes offenders’ families harm.

In Japan, because the number of individuals affected by crime is so miniscule, families feel compelled to keep their troubles private, which allows the government as well as the general public to turn a blind eye. Indeed, Boling (1996) noted that privacy isolates individuals, rendering them unable to recognize public problems and political issues shared with others. Thus, crime tends to be seen as an individual problem in Japan, fostering stigmatizing societal responses. This is in stark contrast to the situation in the United States where crime is so prevalent and racialized that the whole African American community not only sees it as less stigmatizing, but also an opportunity to advocate for social change (e.g. Black Lives Matter). But even in the United States, with the daily reporting of innocent black lives lost to police brutality, the crime rate continues to drop (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2015). In fact, there seems to be a global trend of crime decline in Europe and North America (Knepper, 2012; Tseloni, Mailley, Farrell, & Tilley, 2010). For these developed democracies, the Japanese experience serves as a cautionary tale that a “safe society” may not be a blessing for all individuals. This irony teaches us the importance of educating not only offenders’ kin, but also the general public about offending as a social phenomenon, so as to curtail stereotypes and the stigma of crime. Moreover, criminal justice officials, legal experts, as well as media personnel must be cognizant of how the consequences of their actions can reach well beyond offenders.

Irony of Japan’s crime control

A closer look at Japan’s crime statistics reveals another fundamental irony that Japanese society experiences. Although the nation’s overall crime rates continue to drop, the average reincarceration rate remains stable, and roughly 40% of ex-inmates return to prison within 5 years of release. For inmates released in 2011 without parole supervision, by 2016, over half were reincarcerated (Ministry of Justice, 2016). Japan’s high-rate of reincarceration suggests that while using shame and stigma as a form of crime control may deter new offenders, it may also breed recidivism. Shunning ex-offenders through denying access to affordable housing, meaningful employment, and reliable social networks may compel ex-prisoners to reoffend (Petersilia, 2003; Travis, 2005; Travis & Waul, 2004).

The informal sanctioning of kin may not only beget re-offending, but persistent recidivism also emotionally injures families who fear stigmatization and shaming. Informal sanctions emotionally burden offenders’ kin, and re-offending perpetuates distress, which raises ethical concerns about the use of stigma and shame for social control (Condry, 2007). Family support is critical for successful prisoner reentry (Arditti & Few, 2006; Naser & La Vigne, 2006; Shapiro, 2001). However, prolonged informal sanctions can render families ambivalent towards newly released offenders, which diminishes chances for desistance. Japan’s high-rates of reentry have enduring collateral consequences for not only offenders, but also their kin.

Scholars have attributed Japan’s low crime rates to the country’s heavy use of informal sanctions for social control (Bayley, 1991; Braithwaite, 1989; Fenwick, 1982; Haley, 1991). Much like the United States where the state uses the fear of crime to govern people’s lives (Garland, 2001; Simon, 2009), Japan’s state-initiated use of informal sanctions has been the country’s pivotal means of crime control. A historical examination of Japan’s drug laws shows that Japan routinely portrays illicit substance users as pathological, morally-depraved, or as the “other” to maintain social control when the government’s legitimacy is threatened (Kingsberg, 2014). Through press clubs where bureaucrats, major corporations, and journalists form a tight-knit community, the Japanese government also has the mass media at its disposal to disseminate their own perceptions of crime and criminals to the public (Freeman, 2000). The Japanese state’s construction of distorted images of criminals through informal sanctions may be a substantial barrier to altering people’s perceptions of crime.

Yet, Japan’s Ministry of Justice has recently changed its views on offender rehabilitation. It has developed prison-based and community-based reentry programs to grapple with Japan’s persistent recidivism rates. These programs will provide individualized rehabilitation and reentry support to drug offenders, sex offenders, women, the elderly, and those with mental illness and disability. The ministry has also partnered with job replacement offices, private corporations, and non-profits to ensure ex-prisoners have access to affordable housing and meaningful employment. Finally, the ministry pledges to educate the public about the importance of social support for successful reentry to spread awareness about recidivism. While these new rehabilitation and reentry programs are limited in terms of accessibility and availability (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 2014), they illustrate progress and indicate a paradigm shift in the minds of Japan’s practitioners and policy makers. This shift could also lead to the potential relaxation of informal sanctions on offenders and their family members in Japan.


This study explored the lived experiences of offenders’ kin in Japan to highlight a host of collateral consequences of informal sanctions and remind us of the fundamental importance of prisoner reentry and rehabilitation. It also illuminated the nature of societal reactions to crime in Japan, which challenged previous perceptions of Japan as an archetypical reintegrative society. The family members in this study demonstrated an immense fear of being informally labeled, which was precipitated by formal institutions such as the police, courts, and the media that generated and publicized formal labels. To avoid informal labeling, family members used secrecy and the power of knowledge. However, secrecy was usually not afforded to children, young women, or the elderly members of individual families. Essentially, there are two forms of power relations that affect offenders’ kin— one that occurs between formal institutions and family members, and the other within the families themselves. This study underlines the importance of educating the agents of control and media personnel, as well as the affected kin on how to empower every family member in the wake of kin’s crime.

While the current research is the most comprehensive study of Japanese families of offenders that has been conducted, it is not without limitations. Sampling from family support organizations excludes families who are unwilling or unable to reach out for help. Thus, the accounts of those who may not wish to support their incarcerated kin are left out. With an increasing number of the aging population in correctional facilities in Japan, it is assumed that a sizeable portion of prisoners have lost contact with their family members due to death or an extended period of separation. Therefore, this research also lacks the accounts of those who are unknowledgeable about their kin’s offending. While attempts were made to increase research validity by confirming findings with the study participants and practitioners, the current study is void of inter-rater reliability checks. Consequently, there is a chance that interpretations of the data are skewed.

Finally, this study lacks the perspectives of male family members of offenders. Due to Japan’s cultural definition of manhood and demanding work environment (Iwao, 1998; Sodei, 1993), some men were perhaps reluctant to attend family circle meetings and share their emotions with others. This limitation highlights the need to investigate gendered aspects of offender support activities in Japan. More importantly, the universal gender imbalance in family circles in Japan and the West needs to be examined. Scholars should ask why women are at the forefront of offender assistance, providing continuous care for offenders throughout formal and informal sanctions. Although the male experience requires further examination, women should remain centered in research on family members of offenders. Because of their culturally expected role of a caregiver, female family members remain in a close proximity to offenders and may suffer from more negative repercussions of informal sanctions than their male counterparts. Using feminist thought and research techniques, future research needs to ascertain how power relations within the family and society influence women and men as family members of offenders.


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Mari Kita is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her research interests include feminist criminology and comparative criminology, with topics ranging from offenders' families to capital punishment and media constructions of women's crime in the US and Japan.

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