What Makes Japan so Safe?
The aftermath of World War II in Japan was marked by razed cities, devastated and grieving families, a broken national spirit, and what seemed like a major and irrecoverable economic downturn. By the 1970s, however, not only had the Japanese economy rebounded and measured one of the highest numbers of GDP per capita, but the crime rate had also fallen dramatically.
In 2006, Japan recorded only two firearm related homicides. The United States, on the other hand, has averaged roughly 11,000 firearm related deaths per year for the past ten years; mass shootings routinely occur in America. When comparing Japan to other industrialized countries, it not only has the lowest amount of gun crimes, but one of the lowest crime rates; in 2019 it measured just three robberies per 100,000 residents.
So what makes Japan so safe? The answer to this question lies in the origin of the Japanese legal system and culture surrounding violence.
In the 1850s Japan was an isolated country: they had no immigrants on their land and they seldom traded with their foreign neighbors. Then, in 1853, American warships appeared at the Japanese harbor, demanding that Japan open its borders to the outside world or risk invasion. The Japanese, with a fragmented group of samurais and outdated war equipment and fighting styles, quickly agreed. Soon after, a major reform of Japanese society, known as the Meiji restoration, began.
This time period was marked by the industrialization and modernization of Japan. The government installed railroads linking major cities, constructed telegraph lines, and adopted a European style banking system.
Most importantly, Japan wanted to develop relationships with foreign countries, like China and Korea, and understood that the adoption of Western legal systems would be essential for creating new treaties and legitimizing their presence as a global trader.
However, the emperor was careful not to replicate all aspects of Western society.
Particularly, he did not place the same emphasis on the spirit of individualism found in the United States. Instead, he placed importance on the safety of the whole and the protection of the community.
Additionally, while Japan adopted European and American laws, there was not a struggle for rights and freedom that can be found in most Western countries. Thus, Japan had imported Western legal systems, but these systems worked within the context of Japanese culture and thought.
After WWII, as Japan faced major destruction from severe violence, the culture of peace, conformity and community safety continued to grow. Today, this culture is the main reason why Japan is so safe.
Since Japan did not have to wrestle freedom from an oppressor, there is no Japanese equivalent of the second amendment; the Japanese do not rely on weapons as a source of self pride and protection. In fact, buying a gun in Japan is extremely difficult: one must pass a series of mental, physical, and firearm training tests, along with an annual weapons inspection, to own a firearm. Roughly 1 in 175 households in Japan have guns, while in America, 1 in 3 households have guns.
This lack of guns in Japan is one of the reasons the country has such low levels of violent crime; Japan ranks 9th on the global peace index, compared to the US at 121, and fewer than one person is murdered in Japan for every 100,000, compared to 4.8 in the US.
Perhaps the greatest place where Japanese culture has influenced their society is in the police force. In Japan, to supplement police precincts, legislators have created a ‘koban’ system. In this system, every neighborhood has multiple kobans, or small one to two room police offices.
These kobans not only deter crime and create a reliable safe haven, but they also foster friendly interactions with police. Japanese citizens are encouraged to enter a koban to ask for directions or if they have a simple question. Many Japanese children visit kobans on school field trips and police officers stationed in kobans will often get to know the citizens in their neighborhood.
This system enables trust in police from citizens and ensures that all Japanese feel comfortable calling the police and interacting with them.
Japanese police are discouraged from using their firearm: they cannot carry their weapon when they are off duty, invest hours in studying martial arts as using their gun should be a last resort, and receive 6 to 12 months of firearm training.
These significant levels of safety exhibited in Japan comes at a cost however. Japan has one of the most homogenous populations in the world and some of the strictest immigration policies; 98.4% of the population is ethnically Japanese (graph here? - linked below). This extremely homogenous population allows the government to better control the population and ensure that their policies are not challenged by foreign value systems.
Additionally, Japan’s criminal justice system often does not allow for fair trials. 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.
While copying some of Japan’s legal policies in the US may be tempting to promote safety, ultimately Japan’s safety is due to their culture, which manifests itself through strict gun control and a disciplined police force. It is easy to see the benefits of having such a secure society, but it is important to remember the costs that are incurred to civil liberties when an accusation is as good as a conviction.
Written by Rohan Mehta
Edited by Paul Marrinan, Jimei Shen & Alexander Fleiss
Komiya, Nobuo. "A CULTURAL STUDY OF THE LOW CRIME RATE IN JAPAN." The British Journal of Criminology 39, no. 3 (1999): 369-90. Accessed June 25, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/23638981.
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Fisher, Max. “How Japan Has Virtually Eliminated Shooting Deaths.” The Atlantic, July 23, 2012. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/07/a-land-without-guns-how-japan-has-virtually-eliminated-shooting-deaths/260189/.
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