Photo/IllutrationAn inmate in his 30s receives a certificate for course completion from the junior high school within the Matsumoto Juvenile Prison at the graduation ceremony on March 8. (Shingo Tsuru)

  • Photo/Illustraion

MATSUMOTO, Nagano Prefecture--The only prison in Japan that offers a course in junior high school studies has three new graduates: an inmate in his 20s, one in his 30s and the other 80-plus years old.

After a year of study, the three were awarded a school leaving certificate.

The program at Matsumoto Juvenile Prison is operated by the city-run Asahimachi Junior High School and is for inmates who were either unable to attend school when they were teenagers or simply didn't bother to study when they were in class.

Compulsory education in Japan continues through junior high school, usually to the age of 15.

The education offered by the prison is open to all male inmates nationwide, and there are no bars on age or nationality, as long as the individual is willing to study.

One of this year’s graduates was an inmate in his 20s, who missed out on a junior high school education due to his family's circumstances. He was a “regular student” who lacked a certificate showing he had graduated from junior high school.

Initially, the man was serving his sentence in another prison and learning kanji characters on his own.

Impressed by the man's efforts, a prison officer suggested that he attend the prison school here which led to him being transferred to Matsumoto Juvenile Prison.

Before joining the school, the man could barely read and write elementary school-level kanji characters. After a year, he mastered most of the characters taught at junior high school.

“I didn't have any fun memory at school, but it has changed now,” the man said. “My current goal is to gain a high school graduate certificate.”

Another inmate in his 30s was an “irregular student” of the course, who already had a certificate to show he had graduated from junior high school.

As a delinquent, he played truant and hardly ever attended school.

“I have a little daughter now,” the man said. “I want to help her to study when she starts elementary school.”

“I was really illiterate,” he recalled of his earlier years. “I was too embarrassed to ask the meaning of words I didn’t know in everyday conversation.”

The two inmates each received a graduate certificate and one for completing the course at the graduation ceremony held March 8 in front of 200 or so fellow inmates.

One classmate in his 80s, the oldest student to date, was unable to attend and received his graduation certificate separately.

He said he was unable to complete his compulsory education because his parents moved home a lot.

The man decided to take up education again when he realized he could not read an application form in Japanese for welfare support.

“This is an amulet for me,” said the man holding the certificate. “Even if I am tempted to commit another crime, I am sure I can desist from more wrongdoing just by looking at this.”

The men's teacher Manabu Takashima, 47, said age can be an advantage in that the inmates reaching junior high school level "can refer to their life's experience in studying what is written in text books.”

“By learning with clear goals, they can turn their lives around,” Takashima said with a smile. “Learning is always meaningful, no matter how old you are.”