By David B. Kopel
The American Rifleman, December 1988
This article is condensed from the law review article Japanese Gun Control, 1993 Asia-Pacific Law Review 26. The law review article is also available in Español. This article is based on Kopel's book The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies? (Prometheus Books, 1992). More articles by Kopel on Japanese gun control are available here.
For gun controllers, Japan is a dream come true. The law is simple: "No-one shall possess a fire-arm or fire-arms or a sword or swords."
Japan's crime rate is very low, and its gun crime rate virtually nil. Anti-gun lobbies tout Japan as the kind of nation that America could be, if only we would ban guns. Handgun Control quotes a Japanese newspaper reporter who writes: "It strikes me as clear that there is a distinct correlation between gun control laws and the rate of violent crime. The fewer the guns, the less the violence."
But while Japan may be a gun-banner's dream, it's a civil libertarian's nightmare. Japan's low crime rate has almost nothing to do with gun control, and everything to do with people control. Americans, used to their own traditions of freedom, would not accept Japan's system of people controls and gun controls.
Besides the police and the military, the only group that is allowed to posses guns is hunters, and that possession is strictly circumscribed. The police even check hunters' ammunition inventory, to make sure that there are no unaccounted shells or bullets. Hunting licenses themselves are not particularly difficult to obtain. A prospective hunter must take an official safety course; and then pass a test which covers maintenance and inspection of the hunting gun, methods of loading and unloading cartridges, shooting from various positions, and target practice for stationary and moving objects. The hunting license is valid for three years. Total permit fees for hunting rifles and licenses are 15000 (about 125 American dollars). When not hunting, gun owners must store their weapons in a locker.
Trap and skeet shooting are also tightly restricted.
Civilians cannot obtain handgun target licenses. Even possession of a starter's pistol is only allowed under carefully- detailed conditions.
The section of the gun law which specifies who may be licensed offers no standards, just the vague statement that licenses must be denied "any person (taking into consideration also relatives living with him) who there is reasonable cause to suspect may be dangerous to other persons' lives or properties or to the public peace." Thus, the police have broad discretion in rejecting applicants.
As in Britain, shotguns are far easier to obtain
than rifles. In a nation with half the population of the U.S., there are
only 27,000 rifle licensees. There about half a million licensed shotguns,
although their numbers have declined by about
20% in this decade.
Japan's strictly-regulated guns play very little part in crime. In 1985, for example, only 35 crimes, including 10 murders, were committed with hunting guns.
Although handguns are completely forbidden to civilians, they still figure somewhat more often in crime. Handguns were used in 209 crimes in 1985. About 2/3 of all gun crimes are committed by Boryokudan, organized crime groups.
As the gun-banners point out, the Japanese crime
rate is dramatically lower than the U.S. rate. Tokyo, the world's safest
major city, suffers muggings at the rate of 40 per year per one
million inhabitants. New York City's rate is 11,000.
According to government statistics, Japan has 1.5 homicides per 100,000 citizens each year, and America has 7.9. Actually, the gap between U.S. and Japanese homicide rates is not quite as large as the official statistics indicate. The real Japanese murder rate is about twice the reported rate; unlike the U.S., Japan does not count an attempt to injure, but which accidentally causes death, as a homicide. The F.B.I. also over-counts American murders, by listing the 1,500 - 2,500 legal, self- defense fatal shootings of criminals as illegal homicide. Still, Japan's actual homicide rate is two to three times lower than the U.S. rate. As for handgun murders, the U.S. rate is 200 times higher than Japan's.
Robbery in Japan is about as rare as murder. Japan's annual robbery rate is 1.8 per 100,000 inhabitants; America's is 205.4. Do the gun banners have the argument won when they point to these statistics? No, they don't. A realistic examination of Japanese culture leads to the conclusion that gun control has little, if anything, to do with Japan's low crime rates. Japan's lack of crime is more the result of the very extensive powers of the Japanese police, and the distinctive relation of the Japanese citizenry to authority. Further, none of the reasons which have made gun control succeed in Japan (in terms of disarming citizens) exist in the U.S.
The Japanese criminal justice system bears more heavily on a suspect than any other system in an industrial democratic nation. One American found this out when he was arrested in Okinawa for possessing marijuana: he was interrogated for days without an attorney, and signed a confession written in Japanese that he could not read. He met his lawyer for the first time at his trial, which took 30 minutes.
Unlike in the United States, where the Miranda rule limits coercive police interrogation techniques, Japanese police and prosecutors may detain a suspect indefinitely until he confesses. (Technically, detentions are only allowed for three days, followed by ten day extensions approved by a judge, but defense attorneys rarely oppose the extension request, for fear of offending the prosecutor.) Bail is denied if it would interfere with interrogation.
Even after interrogation is completed, pretrial detention may continue on a variety of pretexts, such as preventing the defendant from destroying evidence. Criminal defense lawyers are the only people allowed to visit a detained suspect, and those meetings are strictly limited.
Partly as a result of these coercive practices, and partly as a result of the Japanese sense of shame, the confession rate is 95%.
For those few defendants who dare to go to trial,
there is no jury. Since judges almost always defer to the prosecutors'
judgment, the trial conviction rate for violent crime is 99.5%.
Of those convicted, 98% receive jail time.
In short, once a Japanese suspect is apprehended, the power of the prosecutor makes it very likely the suspect will go to jail. And the power of the policeman makes it quite likely that a criminal will be apprehended.
The police routinely ask "suspicious" characters to show what is in their purse or sack. In effect, the police can search almost anyone, almost anytime, because courts only rarely exclude evidence seized by the police -- even if the police acted illegally.
The most important element of police power, though, is not authority to search, but authority in the community. Like school teachers, Japanese policemen rate high in public esteem, especially in the countryside. Community leaders and role models, the police are trained in calligraphy and Haiku composition. In police per capita, Japan far outranks all other major democracies.
15,000 koban "police boxes" are located throughout
the cities. Citizens go to the 24-hour-a-day boxes not only for street
directions, but to complain about day-to-day problems, such as noisy
neighbors, or to ask advice on how to raise children. Some of the
policemen and their families live in the boxes. Police box officers clear
74.6% of all criminal cases cleared. Police box officers also spend time
teaching neighborhood youth judo or calligraphy. The officers even hand-
write their own newspapers, with information about crime and accidents,
"stories about good deeds by children, and opinions of
The police box system contrasts sharply with the practice in America. Here, most departments adopt a policy of "stranger policing." To prevent corruption, police are frequently rotated from one neighborhood to another. But as federal judge Charles Silberman writes, "the cure is worse than the disease, for officers develop no sense of identification with their beats, hence no emotional stake in improving the quality of life there."
Thus, the U.S. citizenry does not develop a supportive relationship with the police. One poll showed that 60% of police officers believe "it is difficult to persuade people to give patrolmen the information they need."
The Japanese police do not spend all their time in the koban boxes. As the Japanese government puts it: "Home visit is one of the most important duties of officers assigned to police boxes." Making annual visits to each home in their beat, officers keep track of who lives where, and which family member to contact in case of emergency. The police also check on all gun licensees, to make sure no gun has been stolen or misused, that the gun is securely stored, and that the licensees are emotionally stable.
Gun banners might rejoice at a society where the police keep such a sharp eye on citizens' guns. But the price is that the police keep an eye on everything.
Policemen are apt to tell people reading sexually-oriented magazines to read something more worthwhile. Japan's major official year-end police report includes statistics like "Background and Motives for Girls' Sexual Misconduct." In 1985, the police determined that 37.4% of the girls had been seduced, and the rest had had sex "voluntarily." For the volunteers, 19.6% acted "out of curiosity", while for 18.1%, the motive was "liked particular boy." The year-end police report also includes sections on labor demands, and on anti-nuclear or anti-military demonstrations.
Broad powers, professionalism, and community support combine to help Tokyo police solve 96.5% of murders, and 82.5% of robberies. In America, the police clear 74% of murders, but only a quarter of all robberies. 70% of all Japanese crimes end in a conviction; only 19.8% of American crimes even end in an arrest. A mere 9% of reported American violent crimes end in incarceration. Compared to the Japanese criminal, the American criminal faces only a minuscule risk of jail. Is it any wonder that American criminals commit so many more crimes?
Additionally, Japan's tight, conformist social culture does an excellent job of keeping citizens out of crime in the first place. As the head of Tokyo's Police Department explains, "A man who commits a crime will bring dishonor to his family and his village, so he will think twice about disgracing them."
Having lived together for several thousand years without significant immigration, the Japanese have developed the world's most homogenous and unified society. America's ethnic diversity causes tensions and crime, as the first or second generations of immigrants sometimes have difficulty adjusting to American ways.
But even if immigration does cause some crime, our policies certainly seem more humane than the ethnic policies of Japan. When Japan, under severe American pressure, admitted 100 Vietnamese boat people, a leading publication called them "the sword of an alien culture pointed at Japan."
Many Korean families have lived in Japan for longer than Michael Dukakis' family has lived in America. Although born in Japan, the Koreans have "impure" blood, which makes them forever ineligible for Japanese citizenship.
Partly because the Japanese are so unified and
homogenous, they accept and internalize social controls. It is this
attitude of obedience and impulse control that matters most in the low
Japanese crime rate. Guns or not, the Japanese are simply the
world's most law-abiding people.
Japanese-Americans, who of course have access to firearms, have an even lower violent crime rate than do Japanese in Japan. Likewise, prisoners in jails in Japan and in America prisoners have no guns, but American prisoners commit about a hundred murders annually, and Japanese prisoners none.
Dr. Paul Blackman of NRA/ILA points out that if gun control were really the major cause of the low Japanese crime rate, it would be impossible to explain why Japan's non-gun crime rate is so much lower than America's non-gun crime rate. America's non-gun robbery rate, for example, is 60 times Japan's.
If gun control were really such an important
factor in Japan's low crime, it would also be hard to explain why Japan's
murder rate is higher than Britain's (a shooter's paradise compared to
Japan). Both Switzerland and Israel have many more guns per capita than
even America, and require citizens to own or train with pistols and fully
automatic rifles. Yet these countries have less murder and violent crime
than Japan, and
almost no gun crime.
In short, it is not the presence or absence of physical objects that matters, but how they are treated. In America, scaffolding collapses kill about 2,500 workers over the course of a decade. Japan, though, has not had a single scaffolding fatality in the past decade. Japan has not outlawed scaffolding; rather, the Japanese business culture simply takes workplace safety more seriously than does American culture.
Japan's experience also indicates that gun control
has almost no effect on a nation's suicide rate. While the Japanese gun
suicide rate is one-fiftieth of America's, the overall
suicide rate is twice as high as America's.
American gun controllers argue that in America,
more males die from suicide attempts because males are more likely to
choose a gun as a suicide weapon. Yet in Japan, males are still twice
as likely to die in a suicide attempt as are females.
Japan suffers from many double or multiple suicides, called shinju. Suicidal parents often kill their children, at the rate of one per day, in oyako-shinju. In fact, 17% of all Japanese homicide victims are children murdered by suicidal parents. Thus, Japan's tight family structure, which keeps the crime rate low, is not an unalloyed blessing.
Even America's leading gun control scholar, Stanford's Franklin Zimring concedes: "Cultural factors appear to affect the suicide rates far more than the availability and use of firearms. Thus suicide rates would not seem to be readily affected by making firearms less available."
Zimring's observation fits with the evidence in America. All ethnic groups have equal access to firearms, but Jews are less likely to use guns as their suicide method, while Blacks and Southerners are more likely to use guns. Although American Blacks are more likely to use guns in suicide, the black suicide rate is below the American average.
While Japan's gun control has been irrelevant to
crime control or suicide prevention, it has been successful in another
sense: virtually no-one in Japan, except for some carefully- controlled
hunters, has a gun. Japan is truly a gun-free society. Most of the
Japanese tourists who shoot at the Hawaii
Gun Club on Oahu have never even seen a gun before.
Yet it is doubtful that America could imitate even this limited "success" of Japan's gun control. Americans possess many more guns than the Japanese ever did; and, unlike the Japanese, Americans seem determined to keep their weapons.
Japan never had a significant stock of non-military guns, so gun control was simple to mandate. But in America, there are already over 100 million long guns, and 60 million handguns. In 1985, the Japanese police seized a record high 1,369 illegal guns. A big-city police force in the U.S. might confiscate that many in a few months.
An island nation, Japan can more or less seal its borders against illegal gun imports. Yet even if gun manufacture in America vanished, and all present guns were confiscated, illegal imports would quickly rebuild the American gun supply. If the United States imported illegal handguns in the same physical volume it imports marijuana, 20 million handguns would cross our borders every year. (The legal market for handgun purchases is about 2.5 million annually.)
For the vast majority of Japanese, never seeing a gun is hardly a deprivation, for Japan developed only the most minimal cultural attachment to firearms.
When Portuguese trading ships arrived in the middle of the 16th century, Japan's many feudal rulers investigated guns for use in the ongoing civil wars. Long before the "Southern Barbarians" (Western traders) ever arrived, Japan had far outpaced Europe in metallurgy. Within a few decades, the various Japanese armies had more, better-built guns than most European armies.
A military dictator named Hideyoshi was
particularly expert firearms tactics, and Hideoyoshi finally conquered
Japan and ended the civil wars. In 1588 Hideyoshi decreed the "Sword
Hunt," and banned possession of swords by the lower classes. The pretext
was that all the swords would be melted down to supply nails for a hall
containing a huge statue of the Buddha.
Instead, Hideoyoshi had the swords melted into a statue of himself.
After Hideoyoshi, the Tokugawa Shogunate took power, and ruled Japan until the late 19th century. The Shogunate used guns extensively in its invasion of Korea. But after the invasion was repelled, Japan turned inward, rejecting all forms of Westernization. Western contact was limited to a single Dutch trading mission, which was required to stay on a small island in Nagasaki harbor.
The Tokoguwa began the gradual process of eradicating all Western influence from Japan, including the use of firearms. Under the Tokugawa, peasants were assigned to a five-man group, headed by landholders who were responsible for the group's behavior. The groups arranged marriages, resolved disputes, kept members from traveling or moving without permission, maintained religious orthodoxy, and enforced the rules against peasants carrying firearms or swords.
The Shogunate's gun control eventually disarmed not only the peasantry, but also the Samurai warriors. Gun-smiths were restricted in the number of apprentices they could adopt, and eventually sales to anyone besides the military government became illegal.
The Samurai did not mind, though. While American
pioneers considered their guns a symbolic "badge of honor," the Samurai
revered swords as the true symbol of knighthood. For combat, Samurai
disdained guns because they allowed fighting from a distance, rather than
face to face, and required the combatant to assume an undignified
crouching position. Further, there was little practical use for long guns,
since there was almost no big
game to hunt.
Thus, in the 1850's, when Commodore Perry re-opened Japan, Japanese were still using primitive matchlock guns similar to the type the Portuguese had introduced over 300 years ago. Led by American manufacturers, the rest of the world had replaced matchlocks with flintlocks. In 1872, the Samurai and the Tokugawas were deposed. The Samurai had used swords to fight against a conscript army, which was armed with rifles. (Although the army now had firearms, villagers still did not.)
In America, on the other hand, guns were owned by
virtually all adult males. In response to the tremendous American demand
for guns, America developed the world's leading firearms companies. Mass
production of firearms led America into the Industrial Revolution, and
became our first major manufactured
Japan, however, has never had much of a firearms industry. MITI, Japan's Ministry for Trade, is hardly encouraging Japanese companies to capture the world's growing market for high-tech plastic/metal alloy guns. Indeed, Japan has only one handgun factory. The manufacturer's main business is heavy electrical equipment; the guns are just a courtesy for the government.
Factory spokesmen will not even reveal the factory's location.
Without a culture of civilians firearms ownership, the Japanese never saw strict gun control as anything out of the ordinary. And because the crime rate is so extraordinarily low, the Japanese, unlike many Americans, perceive no need to own a gun for individual self-defense.
Perhaps the most important reason the Japanese voluntarily accept disarmament is that their government does the same. After the disaster of World War II, war was perceived as an unmitigated horror, and the army was abolished.
The police carry guns, but rarely shoot them, instead using their black belts in judo or police sticks. In an average year, the entire Tokyo police force only fires six shots. Even if guns vanished from America, it is difficult to imagine a big-city American police force firing only six times in an entire year. Likewise, there is obviously a strict gun prohibition in American prisons, but the guards are still armed; the vast majority of Japanese prison guards carry only police sticks.
In a top-down society such as Japan, when the government disarms itself, it creates a powerful moral climate for citizens to do the same. Needless to say, a disarmed military and police are not likely in the United States, and neither is voluntary compliance with gun control.
In many American cities where it is nearly impossible to legally carry a gun for self-defense, many people do so anyway. Many more own illegal weapons at home for self-defense. Thus, American gun banners correctly insist that strict gun controls be accompanied by mandatory jail terms. The gun banners recognize that without mandatory sentences, judges and juries would rarely send their fellow citizens to jail for an illegal self-defense gun. Without the certainty of jail, strict controls are often ignored.
But in Japan, the citizens voluntarily comply with the gun law; accordingly, there is no mandatory minimum penalty for unlicensed firearm possession. If gun ban is readily obeyed in Japan, but is massively resisted wherever it appears in America, isn't that an indication a gun ban might be acceptable in Japan, but wrong in America?
In the 1910 debate preceding the New York's Sullivan Law (the first major American gun control law affecting citizens entitled to full civil rights) one writer recommended that New York copy Japan, "where intending purchasers of revolvers must first obtain police permits, and sales must be reported to the police." In 1987, a letter to the editor of The New Republic announced that Japan has so little crime because "citizens forsake their right to own guns in return for safety," and that America must do the same.
Yet these gun controllers who want America to imitate Japan fail to understand that one culture cannot simply adopt another's laws. Post-war Japan was told to follow American criminal procedure and anti-trust rules, but soon stopped. The rules did not work in a culture used to unlimited police power, and enamored of giant conglomerates.
The Japanese Constitution, written by the American conquerors, has "rights" language far more sweeping than the American constitution. But because Japan lacks a tradition of individual rights or of judicial activism, the Japanese Supreme Court has been passive, unwilling to enforce the rights provisions of the Constitution. For example, the Japanese constitution, unlike the American one, has strong language guaranteeing equal political, economic, and social rights for women. Yet in practice, American women are far freer than Japanese women, and are given far more legal protection by their own constitution. America made Japan adopt a powerful liberal Constitution, but it could not make Japanese courts think about individual rights the way American courts do.
Gun banners who rejoice that Japan functions
without a right to bear arms should note that Japan functions without
other rights as well. Not only the laws regarding protection of criminal
suspects, but freedom of speech, of intimate conduct, and of religion are
far narrower than in the U.S. Japan even has an official religion, Shinto.
The Japanese military recently consecrated a deceased military hero as a
Shinto god, although
the man was a Christian, and his widow objected vehemently. The contrast between the individualist American and the communal Japanese ethos is manifested in everything from behavior at sporting events to industrial labor organization. As a result, pressure to conform, and internalized willingness to do so are much stronger in Japan than in America. This spirit of conformity provides the best explanation for Japan's low crime rate. It also explains why the Japanese people accept gun control.
Theoretically, America could adopt a gun ban like Japan's. But that ban would be completely alien to our society, which for over 300 years has had the world's freest, most uncontrolled gun culture. Japan's gun laws are part of an authoritarian philosophy of government that is fundamentally at odds with America's traditions of liberty. Such laws have no place in our country.
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