Ja­pan’s ‘Jail­house Rock­ers’ play to a cap­tive au­di­ence


Play­ing to a cap­tive au­di­ence is all in a night’s work for Ja­pan’s jail­house rock­ers.

Armed with acous­tic in­stru­ments and prison-wor­thy lyrics — “cheer up, don’t give up” and “it’s okay to make mis­takes” — the fe­male duo Paix2 has been rock­ing cell blocks for 15 years, and show no signs of stop­ping.

“The pair — Manami Ki­tao, 37, and Megumi Ikatsu, 39 — re­cently played at Kurobane Prison near Tokyo to an au­di­ence of con­victs decked out in iden­ti­cal yel­low prison uni­forms and with close-cropped hair.

Guards at the show dis­pensed with a few of Ja­pan’s no­to­ri­ously strict prison rules by let­ting the 500 con­cert­go­ers sing along and pump their firsts — for two num­bers.

“But the of­fi­cers will take you out in the hall if you get too ex­cited!” Ki­tao warned, spark­ing a roar of laugh­ter from the crowd.

The gig marked the duo’s 362nd prison con­cert, and their un­likely niche could put them into the Guin­ness Book of World Records as the most toured prison band.

The two women were dis­cov­ered by their cur­rent man­ager at a singing com­pe­ti­tion years ago in ru­ral western Tot­tori pre­fec­ture where they grew up. While at a lo­cal event, a po­lice of­fi­cer sug­gested they per­form to in­mates and it wasn’t long be­fore singing to thieves, killers and drug of­fend­ers turned into a pro­fes­sion.

But Ikatsu re­mem­bers the first time she stood in front of an au­di­ence filled with men­ac­ing male pris­on­ers. Her hands shook as she held the mi­cro­phone.

“It was in­tim­i­dat­ing be­cause they had this in­tense gaze and no one smiled,” she said.

Ki­tao has sim­i­larly grim mem­o­ries: “I was ter­ri­fied be­cause there was no re­ac­tion. My mind went blank and I hardly re­mem­ber any­thing about the first con­cert.”

De­spite their jit­tery start, word quickly spread about this pair of young fe­male singers who still have next to no com­pe­ti­tion in their field.

‘Noth­ing glam­orous’

The duo’s folksy range of orig­i­nals and cov­ers, run­ning to pop rock and in­ter­spersed with talk­ing, had the seated Kurobane pris­on­ers clap­ping along and cheer­ing in re­strained en­joy­ment for 90 min­utes.

“Their con­cert made me re­ally think about the mean­ing of life,” a pris­oner in his 40s, who was jailed for drug use, told AFP af­ter the show.

“I thought I should do my best here un­til the day I leave,” added the man who said one song brought him close to tears.

Ar­rests in Ja­pan have fallen over the last decade — the coun­try al­ready has a very low crime rate and just 60,000 pris­on­ers from a pop­u­la­tion of about 127 mil­lion, far lower than some other ad­vanced na­tions.

Ja­pan had 51 pris­on­ers per 100,000 peo­ple, while the fig­ure was 710 in the U.S., 147 in the UK, and 98 in France, ac­cord­ing to latest Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co-op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment (OECD) sta­tis­tics.

But the rate of re­cidi­vism among peo­ple ar­rested has been on the rise, jump­ing to nearly 47 per­cent in 2013 from 28 per­cent in 1997.

The gov­ern­ment is hop­ing to tackle the prob­lem by boost­ing em­ploy­ment pro­grams for ex-in­mates, as Tokyo gets ready to host the 2020 Sum­mer Olympics.

Toru Mat­sumura, in charge of the prison’s ed­uca- tion pro­gram, says that hold­ing live events for pris­on­ers might help re­verse the trend.

It’s a way to “give pris­on­ers a chance to change them­selves for the bet­ter,” he adds.

The singing duo also hope prison shows have an im­pact — and maybe soften the public’s im­age of hard­ened crim­i­nals and the jails they call home through the media’s in­ter­est in them.

“I think the public’s un­der­stand­ing of pris­on­ers will change if they learn about life there,” Ki­tao said. But they’re not get­ting rich do­ing it. The mostly week­end prison gigs rake in about 30,000 yen (US$250) to 40,000 yen per show, and that mod­est fee must also cover their ac­com­mo­da­tion and trans­porta­tion costs to pris­ons across the coun­try.

“Per­form­ing at pris­ons meant that we wouldn’t be like other fa­mous singers on tele­vi­sion — the con­certs are noth­ing glam­orous,” Ikatsu said.

But the duo, who have played at ev­ery prison hall in the coun­try, knew they made the right de­ci­sion when for­mer in­mates started show­ing up at their less fre­quent shows on the out­side.

“For­mer pris­on­ers who come to see our shows tell us they will never com­mit crime again — that is the most mean­ing­ful mo­ment for us,” Ki­tao said.


( Top) Ja­panese fe­male duo Paix2, Manami Ki­tao, left, and Megumi Ikatsu, right, per­form at the Kurobane prison, some 160 kilo­me­ters north of Tokyo on May 16. ( Above) Manami Ki­tao, left, and Megumi Ikatsu pose for a photo out­side the Kurobane prison.

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