Welcome to A Pacific Island Nation with 125 million people—and almost no gun deaths

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Thu, June 1st, 2023

Japan's famous Mt. Fuji in Spring. In a country with more than 100 million people, there are only a handful of murders every single year. (Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Last week, in Nakano City, Japan, an evacuation center was opened in the gymnasium of a middle school, and local officials provided shelter, blankets, food, and drinks to around 60 people. This was in reaction to a horrible event, a man fatally stabbed a woman and then opened fire on several others with a hunting rifle. In total, four people were killed.

In the United States, unfortunately, this might have been a local news story, but nationally the story would have been swallowed up by so many other similar stories like it. Just this past Memorial Day weekend in Chicago, local news reported that 47 people were shot, 9 of them fatally. And NBC reported that nationwide this past holiday weekend, at least 16 people were killed in shootings and dozens more were shot. This includes the violence in Chicago, a shooting in Hollywood Beach, Florida, an argument that led to gunfire in Baltimore, a murderous spree in Mesa, Arizona, shots fired at a casino in Seattle, and a shootout at a motorcycle rally in Red River, New Mexico.

“Gun violence is extremely rare in Japan, a country of 125 million people,” reads a CNN article on the recent Nakano City killings. “It has one of the lowest rates of gun crimes in the world due to its extremely strict gun control laws.”

In fact in 2022, nine incidents involving firearms took place in Japan, one down from the previous year, according to the National Police Agency. Of the nine incidents, six are believed to have been committed by gangs and other groups. In total, four people were killed and two injured in the nine incidents. The takeaway here is pretty startling—far more people were shot and killed in a single US city during one holiday weekend than in all of last year throughout the entire country of Japan. Included among the 2022 incidents of violence in Japan was the assassination of the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, who was shot dead during a campaign speech in Nara in July by a suspect who used a homemade weapon. His murder, CNN reported, “sent shock waves through Japan and the international community, and also sparked questions about whether enough security was in place to protect him despite Japan’s track record for being a safe place.”

Some experts do believe that the country is legitimately getting more dangerous. “Crimes in Japan rise in 2022 for 1st time in 20 years,” reads the headline of an article published last year in the Kyodo News. The article reports that in a 2022 online survey conducted by the National Police Agency, 67 percent of respondents felt public safety in Japan had declined over the past ten years, possibly affected by the former prime minister’s assassination and a number of stabbings in recent years. “The 5,000 respondents aged 15 and older, cited random killings, defrauding by impersonation, and child abuse as among crimes that came to mind,” reported Kyodo News.

Just why Japan is so safe is a hot topic of debate in policy circles, and also on the internet. One of the reasons at the top of most lists is the nation’s strong sense of moral duty. “In most Japanese cities it is safe to walk around at night,” says a Medium post on the topic of safety in Japan. “One of the reasons for this is that Japanese children are taught from a very young age the differences between what is morally right and wrong. From this upbringing comes a belief of trust and looking out for one’s family, friends, and neighbors.”

Japan has also employed a number of clever tactics aimed at lowering crime rates and opportunities for crimes. This includes ensuring that late-night convenient stores are always staffed by at least two people, and removing other objects considered “easy targets,” like outdoor ATM cash machines. As the Medium post notes, “In many countries throughout the world, the ATM cash machine is a great convenience, but they can also become a magnet to those wishing to commit a crime. In Japan, all the ATM machines are found inside buildings with secure-lockable booths.”

The Medium article points out another interesting difference: drug use. In the United States, celebrities openly use drugs on TV, in films, and in public. But when famous US actors visit Japan, they have to contend with a different sort of reality. “A number of celebrities have in the past been denied entry into Japan due to their having previous convictions for drug-related offenses,” says the Medium post. Paul McCartney was arrested at the airport on arrival because he was in possession of marijuana and Paris Hilton, Madonna, and perhaps most famously, the Rolling Stones, have never even been allowed into the country because of drug-related offenses on their records. “The role of anyone seeking fame in Japan is to become a respected role model, and it is not unheard of for people to apologize on national television for being under the influence of drugs,” continues the Medium post. “The people of Japan are free to make their own decisions on this lifestyle choice, although it will not be supported by the country, and drug use is still a taboo topic in Japanese society.”

Just how zero tolerance is the drug policy? “Marijuana is enough to land you in a cell and completely ruin your life,” says a post on the site yourjapan. “For Japanese people, to even be caught once with some green, could leave you serving time and will destroy any hope you have in achieving a career. You may as well give up on ever finding work in Japan again.” And if you are a foreign resident and “caught with any hint of the stuff, you’re immediately escorted out of the country with no hope of ever returning.”

While on the topic of drugs, it is also worth noting Japan’s policy on drinking and driving. Keep in mind that in the US, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 37 people die in drunk driving crashes every single day, and in 2021, 13,384 people died in alcohol-impaired driving traffic deaths. In Japan, there is a strict zero tolerance for drunk driving. If you go out for a drink, you leave your car at home. And if you are driving, you never drink. If you do happen to get into a situation where you are out for a drink and have your car, there is a legal option. You call a daikou, a specialized section of a taxi service that brings an extra driver. Then, you ride home in the taxi, and your car is driven home by a safe driver.

Another important point mentioned in many of the articles on why Japan is so safe is the lack of diversity. Japan has very little outside immigration. “Perhaps the most important reason why Japan has such a low crime rate is Japanese culture and the Japanese ‘kokuminsei,’ or national character,” writes Mairi McLaren, who worked as a teacher, writer, and translator in Japan for over 16 years. “It is well known that the Japanese value social harmony, observe hierarchy, and prefer to avoid conflict… the country managed to hold onto its core principle of collectivism and avoid copying the spirit of individualism that is mainstream in the West. In addition, Japan is still a highly homogenous country, with around 97.9% of the population ethnically Japanese. Strict immigration policies have resulted in cultural uniformity and ensure that foreign value systems have had very little influence.”

A post on Japan Today about safety in Japan puts it this way: “Basically, by not being open to other cultures and value systems, they’re able to preserve their own.” This post, it should be noted, received a massive amount of criticism and comments. As one commenter noted: “I was born here then spent my youth in over 20 countries growing up then returned…Children here have these morals drilled into them unlike anywhere else I’ve seen, and I’m talking on a nationwide level (obviously most people and parents try to teach their children well.) I think there’s a downside to being so rigid and that creative thinking and those who don’t fit in can really suffer, but as far as the masses go they don’t have wanna be gangster children, rampant crime, abuse of alcohol and drugs, and general fascination to be badass or for badass behavior.”

And then of course there is the issue of guns. In America, as is often broadcast, there are more guns than people. In fact, the Small Arms Survey, a research group based in Switzerland, estimated that in 2017, 393 million guns were owned by United States citizens, and that same year the U.S. Census estimated the population to be 326 million. In Japan, the gun laws are extremely strict, and it’s a different story entirely.

“In 2021, there were just ten gun-related incidents and one death recorded; eight were related to criminal gangs (Yakuza), and only two were attributed to members of the general public,” writes Mairi McLaren. “Unlike the US, it is almost impossibly difficult to acquire a firearm in Japan. There are twelve steps a prospective gun owner must go through before purchasing a firearm in Japan, including taking a written exam, obtaining a doctor’s letter, and undergoing a police inspection of your gun storage facility. The whole process may take several months from start to finish, meaning that only the very persistent will get as far as taking a gun home.” Therapy sessions are also required to prove mental stability.

There are other issues to the gun violence epidemic in America than just the guns, and examining Japan helps bring some of these things to the surface. As a post about Japanese safety on the blog Rebellion Research points out, “There is no Japanese equivalent of the second amendment; the Japanese do not rely on weapons as a source of self-pride and protection.” Meaning, people in Japan don’t see guns as a symbol of manhood or strength, or national pride. And when they are angry or want to commit a crime, they may have to go to great lengths to acquire a gun. Just consider the case of Tetsuya Yamagami. That’s the suspect in the July 2022 murder of prime minister Shinzo Abe. Yamagami shot the former prime minister using a homemade improvised firing device, “a 40 by 20 centimeter double-barrel homemade gun comprised of two metal plumbing pipes taped onto a wood mount,” reports a post with The Jamestown Foundation, a global research and analysis firm. “The firing component featured a basic electrical wiring circuit connected to commercial batteries. The ammunition and propellant used was likely procured commercially or self-made.” In Japan, even the possession of a knife or other offensive weapons can be illegal.

Japan also has an interesting system of community policing known as the koban system. Kobans are small police offices dotted around city centers and residential areas. “Each koban is staffed 24 hours a day by one or two police officers, and there is always one police officer patrolling the area on a bicycle,” notes Mairi McLaren, the former Japanese translator, and teacher. The koban system has been used in Japan for over 100 years, and there are currently around 6,600 kobans in the country. Many Japanese children visit kobans on school field trips and police officers stationed in kobans will often get to know the residents in their neighborhood. Also, Japanese police are discouraged from using their firearm, cannot carry their weapon when they are off duty, and invest hours in studying martial arts, as using their gun is considered to be a last resort. McLaren says the system has been so successful that it has started to be replicated in other parts of the world. For example, in 1997, the state of São Paulo in Brazil implemented its own community policing program, based on the Japanese koban system.

However, it is not perfect. The Rebellion Research blog illustrates what they believe to be some of the faults in the system. “Japan’s criminal justice system often does not allow for fair trials,” the post reads. “Instead of juries, judges decide the defendant’s guilt, and judge promotions are partially based on the speediness of a judge in a trial, resulting in many judges rushing to end a trial. The combination of a lack of a jury and incentives that judges face to earn a higher position is one of the main factors why Japan has a 99% conviction rate, something that shows that a defendant’s fate has been decided before most trials even began.”

“It is easy to see the benefits of having such a secure society,” the post notes, “but it is important to remember the costs that are incurred to civil liberties when an accusation is as good as a conviction.”

In essence, each country is unique and has formed a society based on its people, their values, and its history. Each has its own problems, and each has struggled to come up with workable solutions. Surely, whether or not one country’s ways are completely applicable to the other, there is value in learning just how they tackle a problem as serious as violent crime and gun deaths.

Have a wonderful Summer, and be safe out there everyone~

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