Abashiri Prison Museum

Introduction

Abashiri Prison was constructed in the 1890s to hold over a thousand prisoners. It's inmates were a mixture of criminals and political prisoners.

Modernization of the prison began in 1984. As old buildings were phased out they were moved to an open air museum, the Abashiri Prison Museum.

Opening its doors in 1985 the museum, which has over a dozen mannequin populated buildings, attempts to give some insight into the life of the inmates.

It can be reached by a bus from Abashiri, however make sure you do not get off at Abashiri Prison which is on the same bus route.

A walking tour map is included in the entrance fee of 1080 yen.

Into the Museum

Passing through Main Gate, an arch in a 4.45 metre high red brick wall, I face the Administration Building. Used from 1912 to 1987 its architectural style is typical of early Meiji Period government buildings.

Main Gate
Ashiri Prison Museum Administration Building
Prison Administration Building

Leaving the adminstration buildings and walking towards the guard's quarters I come across a small garden which has a water wheel. I don't know whether this garden existed in the actual prison but it is a pleasant enough place to sit for a few minutes.

Garden in Prison Museum
Garden in Prison Museum

Housing for guards, in 1912, was a simple one room dwelling with no in-door bath and only essential furnishings. Meals were cooked in a hearth near the door. Roofing tiles, rare in Hokkaido during that period, were made in the prison kiln. If the guard rose in rank, he might get a slightly larger dwelling.

Guard's Living Quarters
Guard's Quarters built in 1912
Guard's Living Quarters
Interior of Guard's Quarters

A maximum of 176 similar dwellings lined Abashiri River. They remained in use until construction of the new prison in the 1970s.

Nearby is a water gate.

The Abashiri Prison was surrounded by a 1080 metre long, 4.45 metre high brick wall. It was built from 1919 to 1924.

The wall was punctuated by water gates to exploit the prison's position on the banks of the Abashiri River. They allowed daily prison requirements, including manure for fields, to be transported into the prison.

Manure being Transfer through a Water Gate at Abashiri Prison
Manure being Transferred through a Water Gate

the Prison

The main prison wing was a five-arm radial structure. Other buildings included a cookhouse/cafeteria, storage sheds, blacksmith shop, bath house and a lecture hall.

Farming

The main activity in the prison was farming. Overseeing work in the fields were guards in eight metre high watchtowers. They worked two hour shifts.

Abashiri was self sufficient growing wheat and vegetables including daikon radishes. Vegetables were stored in winter and the radishes were pickled in large vats. The prison also produced its own miso and soy sauce.

Prison Farm
Prison Farm
Storage Shed housing farm implements
Former vegetable storage shed now housing farm implements

Some of the implements used for farming were fabricated in the prison blacksmith shop.

Blacksmith Shop
Blacksmith Shop

Dining

Meals were prepared in large iron pots using various implements.

Meal Preparation
Meal Preparation

Inmates took their meals in the cafeteria. Each man ate at a particular time in a designated a table and chair. They had three meals a day. During the farming season, because they worked into the night, their diet was supplemented with a rice dumpling.

Eating in the Cafeteria
Eating in the Cafeteria

Bathing

Bathing was one of the few pleasures of prison life. Bathing so many people, with only two tubs, required strict procedures. To keep control the prisoners were required to kneel in the tub with their hands out of the water instead of sitting. Baths were deeper, 98cms, compared to domestic baths, to accomodate this practice.

Bathing
Bathing

Main Prison Wing

The main prison wing of Abashiri Prison was a radial prison design which originated in the United Kingdom. Consisting of five linear cell wings radiating from a central guard area it enabled the supervision of 226 cells from a single watch point.

 Central Watch Point
Central Watch Point
Long Wing of Cells
A Linear Wing of Cells

Skylights were provided in prison wings to allow in sunlight. This helped to keep the earthern floor dry and prevented the growth of mold thereby improving hygiene.

Constructed in 1912, it was used until 1985, disassembled, moved to its present location and reassembled.

Lecture Hall

The Lecture Hall was built by the prisoners in 1912. The previous lecture hall was burned down by a fire in 1909. A lot of effort went into rebuilding this "house of deities and Buddhas" It was here that prisoners were taught prison rules, and the importance of having a religious mind as a prelude to a spiritual rebirth.

Lecture Hall
Lecture Hall

I leave the Lecture hall, the last major bulding on the walking tour, near dusk.