The longest prison sentences ever served: redux

Prison walls

Who served out the longest prison sentence known to history? My extensive investigation – begun in 2010 but now comprehensively updated – answers that question [it’s Charles Fossard, of Australia, with an all-but-incomprehensible 70 years, 303 days]. It also takes a look at some of Fossard’s unwitting and unwilling rivals, and tries to go inside the cells, to hear from the prisoners themselves. Their stories are often brutal, occasionally pathetic, but always surprisingly compelling.

The full story – which includes numerous case studies, a state-by-state listing of the longest sentences served everywhere from Alabama to Wisconsin, a look at record stretches from elsewhere, some notes on extraordinary cases of protracted solitary confinement, and a listing of all 16 known cases of men who spent in excess of 60 years behind bars – can be read here.

 

Final straggler: the Japanese soldier who outlasted Hiroo Onoda

Nakamura Teruo lead

Teruo Nakamura, a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army, survived deep in the jungles of Morotai for 29 years after the end of World War II – becoming the last of more than 120 stragglers to be rounded up on various islands in Indonesia and the Pacific between 1947 and 1974.

Japan’s present met its past met its present, four decades ago, by a river in a rainforest on the island of Lubang. The encounter took place late in the tropical dusk of 20 February 1974, as the breeze died and the air grew thick with flying insects. Representing the present was a college drop-out by the name of Norio Suzuki, 24 years old and clad in a T-shirt, dark blue trousers, socks, a pair of rubber sandals. He was stooping, making up a fire from a pile of twigs and branches, quite unaware that he was watched. The past, meanwhile, peered out from the cover of the jungle, wondering if the young man was some sort of trap. The man gazing from the forest fringe wore the remnants of an army uniform, and he carried a rifle. At the time of the encounter, he had been hiding in the interior of Lubang for almost 30 years, steadfastly continuing to wage a war that had ended with Japan’s surrender in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945.

The past’s name was Hiroo Onoda. He was an intelligence officer in the Imperial Japanese Army, he was then just shy of his fifty-second birthday, and he was about to become famous. Continue reading

The octogenarian who took on the shoguns

Shakushain, the leader of Ainu resistance to Japan, is shown in this modern memorial on Hokkaido. Thanks to a postwar revival of Ainu nationalism, celebrations of indigenous culture are held each year at this spot. Photo: Wikicommons.

There has always been something otherworldly about Hokkaido. It is the most northerly of the four great land masses that make up Japan, and although separated from the mainland, Honshu, by a strait only a few miles wide, the island remains geologically and geographically distinct. Spiked with mountains, thick with forests, and never more than sparsely populated, it has a stark and wintry beauty that sets it apart from the more temperate landscapes to the south.

Hokkaido is such a familiar feature on maps of Japan that it is easy to forget what a recent addition it is to both the nation and the state. It does not appear in Japanese chronicles until around 1450, and was not formally incorporated into greater Japan until 1869. As late as 1650, the island was known as “Ezo,” and was a distant frontier zone, only tenuously controlled from Edo (modern Tokyo). Even in the 1740s, Tessa Morris-Suzuki notes, maps of the region still showed it “disappearing over the horizon and petering out in a splash of unconvincing islands.” And while it seems always to have possessed a small population of Japanese hunters and merchants, Hokkaido was home to, and for the most part run by, a significantly larger group of indigenous tribes known collectively as the Ainu.
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The Shogun’s reluctant ambassadors

March 1839: the Japanese cargo ship Cho-ja maru, dismasted and without her rudder, wallows in the Pacific shortly before her surviving crew were picked up by the American whaler James Loper. Artist unknown; Sonkei Archives, Tokyo

When Matthew Perry sailed his squadron of warships into Edo Bay in July 1853 – and compelled the local authorities, under threat of bombardment, to accept a trade treaty with the United States – Japan had been a closed society for well over two centuries. Under the policy known as Sakoku (“locking the country”), practically all trade with the outside world had been strictly prohibited. Christianity was banned, foreigners already in Japan were expelled, and others were forbidden, on pain of death, from entering imperial territory. The Japanese, similarly, were not permitted to leave. For 220 years, the country remained almost entirely isolated, mostly peaceful, and profoundly mysterious and alluring to outsiders.

Whatever the reasons for Japan’s self-imposed seclusion – they are all too frequently reduced to fear of fast-encroaching Christianity, though inevitably they were quite a bit more complex than that [Boxer pp.308-400; Eiichi pp.21-58] – Sakoku produced peculiar results. Japan’s only formal foreign relations were with Korea; strictly limited trade was carried on, but the only westerners allowed anywhere on Japanese territory were the Dutch, and they were favoured largely because, being Calvinists, they had no interest in converting anyone to their religion. Dutch traders, in turn, were restricted to a single “factory,” or base, located on an island just off Nagasaki and chosen to ensure that there could be no easy intercourse with the locals. A few Japanese, specially trained to act as interpreters, had access to the factory, and one or two Dutch merchants, on special occasions, travelled to Edo, the capital, in palanquins. But all but a tiny handful of Japanese had never seen a European and had no access to western thoughts or ideas. Dutch woollen cloth (the principal import) was scarce and hence fashionable and highly sought-after. For the most part, however, it was easy for the Japanese to believe that their visitors were very different to them – indeed, quite possibly, not human:

Most Japanese regarded foreigners (and particularly Europeans) as a special variety of goblin that bore only superficial resemblance to a normal human being. The usual name given to the Dutch was komo or “red hairs,” a name intended more to suggest a demonic being than to describe the actual coloring of the foreigners’ hair. The Portuguese had also at one time been declared by the shogunate to possess “cat’s eyes, huge noses, red hair and shrike’s-tongues” … More