Abashiri Prison Museum

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(Sept 10) As an important part of the Meiji government’s plans to develop Hokkaido, a network of prisons was set up around the island. Prisoners from all over Japan were sent there to serve as convict labor for the many construction projects.

Abashiri Prison, on the frigid northern coast, was the toughest of these prisons; sometimes referred to as “Japan’s Alcatraz.” There is still a maximum-security prison in Abashiri, but in 1985 many of the old buildings were moved to a separate museum, which has made the town a magnet for curious tourists.

The museum’s signs and brochures seem strangely upbeat, with lots of references to things like the “pioneer spirit.” Of course these particular pioneers didn’t have much choice in the matter.

Mirror Bridge Sign

Mirror Bridge

A reconstruction of the old prison gate.

Prison Gate

The river was used to bring most of the necessary supplies into the prison.

Sluice Gate

A cheerful carving of Nipopo.


Who is Nipopo?

Nipopo Sign

There is a reconstruction of the old Abashiri Court House, so we can get an idea of how the prisoners arrived here. The sign explains it better than I can.

Court Sign

19th century judicial robes.

Judicial Robes

More modern courtroom proceedings.


A trial for a more serious offense, with three judges.

3 Judge Trial

An interrogation room.

Interogation Room

A temporary barracks, used when prisoners were sent outside to work on construction projects.

Temporary Barracks

Prisoners Eating

This guard is saying something that I can’t quite make out.

Guard Pointing

Possibly, “Take this one out and shoot him!”

Naturally the prisoners were required to grow most of their own food.

Prison Farm Tools

Prison Garden

Prisoners Farming

Prison Farriers

Prisoner Lifting Rock

A near-life-size diorama shows undersized prisoners who seem about to be attacked by a giant bear.

Prisoners with Giant Bear

Prisoners Beating Straw

Prison Chain Gang

A selection of uniforms worn by guards from the 19th century to the present.

Guard Uniforms

Uniforms worn by prisoners.

Prisoner Uniforms

During the war, prisoners were sent to the Pacific islands to construct airfields.

Prisoners and Airfield

An animated display of prisoners trying to catch pigeon.

Prisoners with  Pigeon

The sign explains.

Pigeon Sign

19th century cell blocks with wooden bars.

Wooden Cell Blocks

More modern cell blocks with iron bars.

Cell Blocks with Iron Bars

Cell Block Interior

Wood stoves provided heat in the winter. Apparently two stoves were sufficient for all these cells.

Cell Block with Wood Stoves

Prisoners in Cell

A punishment chamber, where a recalcitrant prisoner could be confined for up to 7 days.

Punishment Chamber

The prison kitchen.

Prison Kitchen

Use of the bath house was one of the most important privileges given to prisoners.

Prison Bath House

The complex tattoos are associated with the Yakuza organized crime families.

This looks like a small Buddhist temple, but they don’t call it that.

Preaching Place

Preaching Place Sign

Preaching Place Altar

There is also a small and very plain Shinto shrine.

Prison Shrine

And perhaps they sometimes brought in an Orthodox priest for the two Christian prisoners.

Othodox Priest?

Inside the Preaching Place you can see a display of photos showing the harsh conditions in winter.

Prison Winter Photos

…and the prisoner’s straw work boots.

Straw Work Boots

All posts from this trip.