Japan have almost eradicated gun crime. Here, we have an extended interview with Jake Adelstein, a crime journalist in Japan. Below there is also an essay on Japan's crime situation from criminologist Peter Squires.
Photo: Raphäel Vinot
Crime, Violence and the Japanese Gun Laws
Peter Squires, Professor of Criminology & Public Policy, University of Brighton
Japan is universally regarded as a low-crime, low-violence society although social scientific opinion often offers contrasting interpretations as to what has underpinned this low crime culture thus far (McCargo, 2004) and whether the low-crime culture is sustainable in the face of the pressures of globalisation and modernity. Recently, rising crime and violence have been both cause and effect of these growing pressures.
Amongst the reasons put forwards for the historically low rates of crime and violence in Japan are the relatively homogenous, affluent and traditional structures of Japanese society (Komiya, 1999: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1160570##). Social relations are said to emphasise values of social order, collective solidarity, family honour, loyalty to one's immediate community and colleagues (these latter features reinforced by, until recently, the strong work group ethos and 'job for life' achievable in the Japanese employment market). In turn, however, these features are thought to have weakened as global recessions have increased Japanese unemployment, destabilising communities and establishing new inequalities (Leonardsen, 2010).
Japan is said to be a highly 'responsibilised' society in marked contrast to the liberal culture of personalised freedom which has characterised Western Societies. At the same time Japan is said to embody a 'shame' culture (Braithwaite, 1989: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Crime-Shame-Reintegration-John-Braithwaite/dp/0521355672) in which the sense of responsibility for offence, fault or failure is internalised and borne by individuals. This is said to produce a strong compulsion to obedience, a tendency to confess when accused of crime (some 95% of criminal cases are said to be resolved by guilty pleas) although, as Leonardsen has noted, with the fading of the Japanese economic miracle, a parallel tendency to blame victims for social problems, leaving burdens where they fall, has tended to erode a sense of collective well-being.
These more 'cultural' features, or 'soft controls', are thought to have greater significance in restraining crime trends than the Japanese criminal justice system itself, although the police and criminal justice agencies have a number of distinctive and important features. Police are generally held in high regard as authority figures, and they deliver policing services via a philosophy of paternalistic policing by consent. The Koban system - or accessible police bureaux in urban areas are often regarded as a model for 'community policing' although many western observers would find the extensive Japanese police powers of stop, search, arrest and seizure some way beyond what would be tolerable in a democratic and rights-based vulture. US observer David Kopel (1993: http://www.guncite.com/journals/dkjgc.html) refers to Japan as a seemingly consensual 'police state', where the police annually undertake a community census and 'every person is the subject of a police dossier'.
Japan is regarded as having a relatively punitive criminal justice culture and although its rate of incarceration (47:100,000) is only a third of that of England and Wales although it also detains many people who might, in the west, have found their way into prison, in secure mental health facilities. Japan still retains the death penalty (supported by 86% of the public surveyed in 2009) although using it only occasionally (Hoyle, 2014: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/centres-institutes/centre-criminology/blog/2014/01/death-penalty-japan).
Japan's low criminal violence rate is also explained - especially by American scholars - by reference to the exceptionally restrictive firearms laws in Japan. Japan maintains a very low rate of firearm ownership and, correspondingly, has a very low rate of firearm violence and homicide.
A range of factors have conspired, historically, to suppress the demand for firearms in Japan. In the first place, firearms were seen as unmanly and 'dishonourable' in a culture which favoured the samurai sword aesthetic; likewise, there was relatively little tradition of 'game hunting' and a reluctance to embrace foreign technologies (Kopel, 1993). During the militarisation of Japanese society in the 1920s and 30s, firearms use was adopted as part of the military power of the state, but not as a civilian practice. In the aftermath of WW2 and military defeat and demobilisation, Japan returned to a disarmed civilian culture (Law Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/law/help/firearms-control/japan.php). Strengthened firearm regulations, culminating in 1958, with the Firearm and Sword Possession Control Law (enhanced in 1978, 1993 and 1995) imposed tough controls on all firearms and a virtual ban on civilian possession of handguns (Alleman, 2000).
In order to qualify for ownership of a rifle or shotgun, prospective shooters have to establish a clear sporting requirement for their firearm, attend firearm safety classes, pass written and firearm handling tests, undergo background checks, psychological tests and a medical examination, they undergo police interviews and have the police question family members, co-workers and neighbours as to your suitability and demonstrate satisfactory firearm security plan and safe storage of the firearm in the home. In all this process takes about a year (Opelka, 2016: http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2016/08/31/think-getting-a-gun-is-tough-in-america-consider-japans-intrusive-nearly-year-long-process-to-own-a-firearm/). Firearm licenses must be renewed every three years.
Such extensive tests and the relative disinterest of most Japanese citizens in firearm ownership have kept the number of firearms, legal and illegal, in circulation in Japan exceptionally low. Other than their use by police and security forces, handgun ownership is the exclusive preserve of organised and career criminals (scarcity makes weapon traffickingprofitable for a few) and a recent upturn in gang-related shootings and Yakuza organised criminal 'hits' (Ogata, 2016) have led the Japanese Government to further toughen the penalties for illegal gun possession and 'more strictly regulate the flow of firearms into the general population' (Alleman, 2000).
Japan signed up to the UN Arms Trade Treaty finalised in 2013 but almost simultaneously declared a resumption in its arms exports, more recently Prime Minister Shinzo Abe controversially announced a reinterpretation of its constitutional principle of 'collective self defence' governing the deployment of Japanese military forces (commonly referred to as Self Defence Forces). How far the changing global politics of security and counter-terrorism, Japan's uptick in armed criminal violence, tougher gun laws and the potentially changing role of the Japanese military can be seen through a single lens of weaponisation and militarisation remains an open question, but taken together these developments may suggest that Japan is no longer so immune to unsettling global trends as once it may have hoped.