Written by Matthew Fallon

Japan is the fastest growing tourist destination in the world. A result of recently relaxed visa restrictions on tourists from a number of Asian countries, combined with a cheap-flight fuelled booming global tourist trade, 2018 saw Japan welcome over 30 million foreign visitors to its shores1, up from 13.4 million in 2015, and up by 234% from 20102. A thriving country with stunning sights, visitors flock to the islands to visit the nation’s vibrant megacities, admire its mountainous countryside and tropical beaches, to sample the flavours of the archipelago’s unique cuisine, and to experience Japan’s distinctive cultural fusion between the hyper-modern and the intensely traditional.

Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, and most visits to Japan by British nationals are highly enjoyable and free of trouble3. However, as tourist numbers increase, it is important for visitors to be mindful of Japanese laws and customs. There have been notable cases of Brits falling foul of Japanese laws, some of which do not exist in the UK, and others which carry much harsher sentences than an equivalent infraction would at home4. In a land where the conviction rate stands at around 99%, many who are arrested find that a guilty verdict in their case is almost inevitable. Those detained are subject to draconian rules and harsh punishments, in a prison system which is widely regarded as one of the world’s cruellest5.

Japanese laws and customs

If you have a cold, it is worth double checking exactly what is contained in any medication you buy, or maybe just bring along some tissues. This is because some of the oddest laws to watch out for in Japan, and easiest to accidentally break, are those regarding common over-the-counter and prescription medications. Medicines such as cold and flu medication containing Pseudoephedrine, medicines for allergies and sinus problems,  Vicks Inhalers, and some over-the-counter painkillers like those containing Codeine are all banned under Japan’s anti-stimulant drugs law. This law is rigorously enforced and foreign nationals have been detained and deported for bringing these medicines into the country, even if they were unaware of the laws prohibiting them4.

Japan’s zero tolerance drug laws also catch out people looking for more than just a tablet for their runny nose. Detection facilities at post offices and airports are extremely successful at what they do, and there have been notable cases of Brits being detained for receiving small amounts of marijuana through the post4. Japan’s drug laws have even caught out celebrities. Beatles legend Paul McCartney was put in jail in 1980 when airport officials found weed in his suitcase6. His release after 9 days is something which McCartney believes was only facilitated by his celebrity.  In 2018, Grammy award winning American DJ David Morales was lucky to escape a potential 7-year sentence when Japanese customs found five granules of MDMA in his suitcase7,8. People who have already consumed their substances are still at risk of being caught through drug tests carried out by Japanese police in bars.

Aside from drug laws, other common reasons for arrest revolve around disputes over bills. Prices at establishments in some areas of Japan can be politely described as exorbitant. Some foreigners who have challenged these have been known to be arrested4. It is also important to carry a form of ID with you at all times. Japanese police can stop anyone on the street and if they are without identification they can be detained9.

Japanese prison

The typical experience of Japanese prison has been well documented in a variety of reports and articles, and is well articulated by one of our clients Adam* in this piece written for Prisoners Abroad in 2018. On the surface, prison conditions might seem to be tolerable. Prisons in Japan tend to be orderly, clean and prisoners are relatively safe from other inmates. However a system of strict and draconian rules, enforced through ruthless punishments for any transgression, mean that inmates often suffer significant physical and mental hardship at the hands of prison officers 5,11.

Prohibited practices include, and are not limited to, looking prison officers in the eye (and in the rare cases where this is allowed, detainees must accompany eye contact with smiling), marching when moving across the prison, and sitting cross legged while stationary. One ex-prisoner told The Economist that when him and his fellow prisoners took a bath, the bottoms of all his fellow prisoners were ‘dark like bedsores’ from constantly sitting in this position. Communication is banned for the majority of the day, and languages other than Japanese are rarely spoken, increasing the isolation for foreign inmates. Additionally, prison officers are not required by law to communicate in a language that a detainee understands, meaning that it is very easy to unintentionally break a rule and risk the wrath of the Japanese prison officers. Solitary confinement is a standard punishment for transgressions. Prisoners are sometimes not even allowed to leave ‘punishment cells’ in order to go to the toilet. Beatings are common, and one noted punishment is for prisoners to be handcuffed to the belts of their overalls 10,14. Prisoners are also required to work as part of their sentence, with this sometimes involving particularly tedious ‘work’ such as folding pieces of paper into 8 pieces and then unfolding them10. Foreign inmates, unable to speak the language, and the most likely to be put in solitary confinement due to breaking a rule they did not understand, are the most at risk of extreme isolation.


Japan is a beautiful country full of welcoming people, and is rightly regarded as a stunning, pleasant and gratifying destination to visit. Its prison system however is, to put it mildly, not something you are going to want to be featuring in your holiday social media posts. If you are planning to travel to Japan, have a wonderful break, and be sure to read FCO advice on local laws and customs in order to stay on the right side of the law once you are out there. Prisoners Abroad is currently supporting 20 men and 6 women who have found themselves imprisoned in Japan – the majority for drugs offences. If you would consider making a contribution to help us support people overseas, please donate.

  1. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/12/18/national/japan-marks-new-record-foreign-visitors-top-30-million-2018/
  2. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/asia/japan/articles/japan-fastest-growing-travel-destination/
  3. https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/japan
  4. https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/japan/local-laws-and-customs
  5. https://www.economist.com/asia/2015/12/03/silent-screams
  6. https://www.nme.com/news/music/paul-mccartney-japanese-jail-2369315
  7. https://pulseradio.net/articles/2018/10/david-morales-fans-urge-japanese-authorities-to-release-him-from-prison-with-hashtag
  8. https://mixmag.net/read/david-morales-is-not-being-charged-after-his-arrest-for-drug-possession-in-japan-news
  9. https://www.businessinsider.com/japanese-laws-that-shock-foreigners-2015-8?r=US&IR=T
  10. https://www.prisonersabroad.org.uk/japan-frozen-time-frozen-days
  11. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/708482/Prisoner_pack_-_Sentenced.pdf
  12. https://www.straight.com/music/1165041/friends-and-fans-powerclowns-dan-scumm-urged-write-him-japanese-prison-where-hes-down
  13. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/cruel-punishments-and-secret-rules-gzp6w5fj6rh
  14. https://www.prison-insider.com/en/testimonials/temoignage-5c2345fcc20a4