Photo/IllutrationInmates of the Hakodate Juvenile Prison learn how to navigate the sea on the Shonen Hokkai Maru training vessel in Hokkaido. (Nobuhiro Shirai)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

HAKODATE, Hokkaido--A convicted drug dealer took the position of lookout on a ship heading out from a port here, hoping to again experience the natural high of working on the open seas.

The starboard watchman, who is currently serving time for drug-related offenses, is a trainee on the Shonen Hokkai Maru, the only vessel in Japan dedicated to training prison inmates to become mariners.

The Hakodate Juvenile Prison here has been offering the job-training mariner course for inmates since 1958.

It houses about 700 male prisoners, including adults, who are serving sentences of less than 10 years.

The program is not only intended to give convicts a second chance, but the course, and others like it, could also provide a solution for labor-depleted industries in Japan.

The 44-year-old convicted drug dealer said he casually joined the mariner course simply thinking that “it would be nice” if he could find a job.

He soon fell in love with the charms of sailing, he said.

“It is not easy because there are many things I have to remember,” he said. “But the more I learn, the more I am intrigued by the job of mariners.”

He said he now dreams of working on a deep-sea fishing vessel after he serves his sentence.

“I want to put myself in a harsh environment and regain the five years I lost in prison,” he said.

The Shonen Hokkai Maru, on a recent outing in the southern waters off Hokkaido, carried 11 men aged between 25 and 50 who were originally serving time elsewhere in Japan.

They have taken classes on navigation laws and have used the Shonen Hokkai Maru for practical training, including squid fishing during summer nights. Their training time amounts to about 1,500 hours a year.

In most career training courses offered by prisons, inmates, in principal, are not allowed to talk to each other.

But on the Shonen Hokkai Maru, good communication and coordination between crew members are required skills.

“A vessel, probably a fishing boat, is 500 meters ahead to the left,” a trainee yelled while peering through binoculars in the control deck off the Port of Hakodate.

Another trainee holding the vessel’s steering wheel shouted, “Hard a-port.”

Masato Kudo, a 42-year-old officer at the Hakodate Juvenile Prison, initially thought the convicts joined the course only to regularly see the world outside prison walls.

But after three months or so, he realized the expressions on the inmates’ faces had changed.

“More trainees are becoming outspoken about their wish to take up jobs on ships,” Kudo said. “Some continue studying even when they are back in their cells.”

Mikihide Suzuki, 52, the chief engineer of the Shonen Hokkai Maru, said: “As they understand the profession further, the more they become interested and proactive in the training. I think they are growing aware of their roles through working as a team.”

With the Japanese fishing and shipping industries facing labor shortages and rapidly aging work forces, Zenkoku Gyogyo Shugyosha Kakuho Ikusei Center, a Tokyo-based recruitment and training center for fisheries, has been giving talks to inmates enrolled in the course for past three years.

In June, staff members from the center, the Fisheries Agency and the human resources departments of fishing companies explained to the trainees the employment system in the fishing industry and jobs in which they can make the most out of their mariner licenses, should they pass the exam.

In a question-and-answer session, the trainees had so many inquiries that not all of them could be addressed within the provided time.

Atsuko Magami, section chief of the center’s general administration, who gave the talk to the trainees in June, said she was surprised when everyone rose their hands after she asked who wanted a future job on a boat.

The Correction Bureau of the Justice Ministry has been emphasizing job training at prisons around Japan related to industries experiencing chronic labor shortages. So, after they serve their time, the inmates can become immediate assets in the work force.

In fiscal 2013, only four prisons offered a forklift driver course. That number is now 23.

The number of prisons providing a course in which inmates learn how to build reinforced concrete structures increased by one from last fiscal year to seven.

Fifteen prisons now offer practical training courses for convicts who want to become certified nursing-care providers.

An official at the Correction Bureau said it is looking at expanding training programs to meet demand from potential employers.