Inmates draw backgrounds for manga under a prison labor program at the Mine Rehabilitation Program Center in Yamaguchi Prefecture. (Aya Hamada)

MINE, Yamaguchi Prefecture--A glimpse of prison life revealed something startling for manga artist Ryo Sonoba. He could not believe how well some of the inmates could draw.

That revelation led to a special program at the Mine Rehabilitation Program Center, where inmates sentenced to do labor draw cityscapes, buildings, cars and other backgrounds for manga.

On a typical afternoon at the center in mid-October, 12 inmates in light green clothing worked on computers and stylus tablets under the instructions of Sonoba, 56, whose real name is Takumi Shibuya.

One of the inmates raised his hand and asked a prison guard for permission to talk to the instructor.

The inmate took off his cap and asked Sonoba some questions. The artist replied in a respectful manner.

The center was established in April 2007 as Japan’s first prison under a private finance initiative. Essentially, the prison is financed by and receives technical and management expertise of the private sector for public works projects.

About 160 Justice Ministry officials and 200 members of a private security company run the institution.

First-time offenders without severe mental and physical disabilities who are believed capable of adapting to a group working environment are booked into the facility.

Drawing manga backgrounds was adopted as a prison labor activity in summer 2014 after Mine-native Sonoba accompanied an acquaintance to the center to see prison labor.

Intrigued by the prisoners’ drawings for a sightseeing leaflet, Sonoba volunteered himself as an instructor and began commuting to the facility in western Japan once a month from Tokyo, where his studio is based.

In spring 2015, Sonoba was commissioned to do the artwork for a manga adapted from a novel by popular author Yasuo Uchida.

The rehabilitation center accepted Sonoba’s proposition to have inmates draw the backgrounds for the manga, whose locales include Mine.

The inmates seemed reluctant at first, but they broke into smiles when they saw their drawings in manga comics, according to Sonoba.

In April 2017, Sonoba set up the Mangaka Honpo website (https://mangakahonpo.thebase.in/) that sells background images drawn by inmates. Prices range between 300 yen ($2.60) and 600 yen.

Their drawings include station buildings, traditional Japanese houses, Tokyo Skytree and various cars. Their works are now being used in many manga titles.

Sonoba is still baffled by how things work at the facility.

He must gain permission from prison guards every time he wants to talk to the inmates. And some of his “students” simply disappear because they completed their sentences or were thrown out of the program for causing trouble.

But the manga artist finds his service very rewarding.

The inmates become motivated when they are coached by Sonoba. For example, they ask serious questions and put themselves in the position of the client.

A man in his 20s who is serving time for fraud said he was initially inept at using computers and drawing. But after working under Sonoba’s tutelage, he developed these skills.

“I think this experience will benefit me after I am released,” the man said.

Sonoba doesn’t know the names, charges or ages of the inmates he instructs. But he feels a solid connection to them through his mentoring.

He said he hopes the inmates learn the importance of working steadily with patience, as well as feel a sense of accomplishment, through manga drawing.

“Making use of this experience, I want them to go straight while they throw themselves into what they want to do with heart and soul,” Sonoba said.