Photo/IllutrationStanding inside the counter of “Okaeri,” lawyer Hiroshi Nakamura talks to a patron while a male former convict works in the kitchen on Nov. 15. Bottles of high-quality sake ordered by Nakamura, who is also a certified sake sommelier, are lined up at the restaurant in Sapporo’s Chuo Ward. (Yoshinori Toyomane)

SAPPORO--Prosecutor-turned-lawyer Hiroshi Nakamura threw out the welcome mat for ex-cons by opening a shabu-shabu hotpot eatery named “Okaeri” (welcome back) in the city's bustling Susukino district.

His aim is to help former prison inmates reintegrate into society by hiring them as employees.

On the evening of Nov. 15, as the first major snow started to blanket the capital city of the northernmost prefecture, a 39-year-old man took his place in the ninth-floor kitchen of Okaeri, decked out in a cook's distinctive uniform.

The man had served more than four years in prison for an assault and battery case while he was on probation in his late 20s for another crime.

Nakamura, 44, was also on the premises as he watched the man fillet fish into thin slices for sashimi.

Nakamura formerly worked at district public prosecutors offices in Tokyo and Sapporo. His focus in those days was to encourage guilty individuals to focus on their crimes and work on the rehabilitation process.

He would tell them to do their best after their release from prison.

Still, Nakamura felt his methods were not foolproof. There were too many contradictions and limitations.

“It was all about how I got confessions and put them in prison,” Nakamura recalled. “I had to put them through the grinder even though they opened up to me. It was hard.”

Nakamura also realized that recidivism was a major problem.

“When I talk to repeat offenders, they never mentioned having serious support on the outside,” the former prosecutor continued. “I realized that things would be different if there were people who could show them that work can be rewarding.”

Driven by a desire to focus on providing support for the rehabilitation process, Nakamura became a lawyer in 2005.

He tried to help former inmates find work and secure accommodation, but found it hard going. Armed with that thought, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

To learn how to operate a restaurant, Nakamura opened an “izakaya” Japanese-style drinking eatery with another individual in 2017.

The former convict now employed as a cook applied for a part-time job there. He had been released from prison seven years earlier and was working at another job during the day. He didn’t let on to Nakamura that he was a former inmate when he applied for the job because he was initially wary of the rehabilitation support suggested by the lawyer.

Yet, the cook was touched by Nakamura's earnestness in trying to help.

Several months later, while exchanging e-mails with Nakamura, the man confided that he was actually one of the “former convicts” the lawyer had been talking about.

After Nakamura's business partner became too tied up to concentrate on the business, he closed the pub to work on opening a new eatery with the former convict running the kitchen.

Nakamura decided to call the restaurant Okaeri after the man said he hoped it could be a place where they could tell former inmates “Welcome back.”

Okaeri offers an exclusive meal set for customers who were released from prison within the previous three months. It includes two glasses of sake and three dishes for 1,800 yen ($16.40), excluding tax. If the restaurant makes a go of it, Nakamura said he intends to hire more former inmates.

“I can empathize with them, and at the same time, I can also tell them, ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you,’” the former convict said. “I think that’s the meaning of my work here.”

Nakamura added: “Previous convictions and records mean nothing here. This is a discrimination-free place where you don’t need to worry about how others see you.”

72 PERCENT WERE JOBLESS

Of 215,003 criminal offenders arrested or taken into custody in 2017, 104,774 were repeat offenders, according to a white paper on crime compiled by the Justice Ministry. The percentage of repeat offenders remains the same as in the previous year at 48.7 percent.

The ratio of re-imprisoned inmates also remains high, accounting for 59.4 percent of all prisoners admitted in 2017.

The figures show that 72.4 percent of re-imprisoned inmates had been unemployed, about 2.6 times the ratio of those with jobs.

The government set up a program in 2017 in the hope of reducing the number of repeat offenses. Its thrust was to secure employment and accommodation, calling them priority issues. Other measures include providing advice and support for job training and employment, fixing ex-cons up with “supportive employers” and providing assistance to people who offer places to live.