OSAKA – The recent mass shootings in the United States have spurred the White House to pursue what many in the nation consider taboo: strict gun controls.
But momentum is growing even among some die-hard advocates of the Second Amendment — the right to bear arms — including those who grew up using firearms to hunt, for sport or to protect their farms and homes. Many of them feel certain types of weapons, particularly military-style ones, are only designed for mass carnage.
In Japan, on the other hand, legal gun ownership is tightly controlled and allowed only for specific types of hunting or target shooting.
How does one get a hunting license in Japan?
The first step is to pass the test for hunting licenses administered by the governor of the prefecture where one resides. Hunting licenses, which are good for three years, basically fall into three categories: nets, traps and firearms.
The firearm licenses cover two categories: “explosive charge guns” (rifles and shotguns) and guns that use air pressure to fire projectiles.
Someone seeking a rifle or shotgun license must be at least 20 years old. Those who want to use air guns must be at least 18.
Applicants in either category must provide medical proof that they are sound of mind and not addicted to stimulants or other drugs. They must also demonstrate good judgment and physical ability.
Those with serious criminal records or a history of treatment for mental illness cannot qualify.
Any hunting law violator who has been penalized by more than a fine must wait three years from the day of their suspension to retake the licensing test.
The test covers hunting laws, the handling of traps, nets and firearms, and knowledge of different kinds of game. A score of 70 percent or above passes.
Applicants are also tested on their seeing and hearing abilities and physical fitness.
So is a hunting license all that is needed to own a gun?
No. A separate gun permit is required and the range of firearms is limited to shotguns or rifles.
While the Environment Ministry issues hunting licenses through prefectural governments, gun permits are issued by the National Police Agency through prefectural public safety commissions.
The vetting process is strict. Applicants must attend a lecture, pass a written test and practice with a police-provided 12-gauge shotgun. Once permission is granted, the gun must be purchased from a licensed dealer. The buyer must then take the weapon to the police to show them it is the one that was applied for.
Rick Sacca, a Shizuoka-based American and experienced hunter in both countries, notes there is a level of background checks the police conduct on gun applicants that would be considered a violation of privacy in the U.S. Employers, homeowners, families, neighbors, and even the head of the local ward association are among those police here would interview.
Anyone seeking to acquire a rifle in principle would have to have owned a shotgun for at least 10 years, and fulfill a separate set of requirements and paperwork.
Some prefectural police forces are quite strict and rarely issue rifle permits — even if the applicant is qualified. Pistols are not legally available to civilians.
For all gun permits, the police carry out thorough background checks on applicants, their families and their employment records. Any links to undesirable or dangerous elements of society results in disqualification.
What rules must gun owners follow?
Firearms must be stored in police-approved gun lockers, and ammunition must be stored separately. Separate police permission is meanwhile needed to buy ammunition.
Owners must inform police about the exact location where they are storing a firearm and ammunition, and they will conduct an annual inspection to ensure compliance.
Owners must retake the police gun permit exam every three years.
What are the costs involved?
Neither the hunting license nor the gun permit come cheap.
The Dai Nihon Hunters Friendship Association (Dainihon Ryoyukai), a public organization with branches nationwide, runs training programs that cost around ¥56,000 for sample tests and lectures. This includes training on how to use a firearm.
There is a further ¥14,000 commission that must be sent in with the gun permit application. Then there’s the firearm itself, which, the association estimates, could cost ¥45,000 minimum. Bullets for a rifle run about ¥80 each.
The police-approved gun locker costs ¥30,000 and the approved ammunition locker ¥10,000. Then there are the accessories needed to carry and clean the firearms, probably costing another ¥10,000.
So the minimum cost for becoming a gun-toting hunter is estimated at ¥115,000.
There is also an additional local government hunt-registration fee and a hunting tax. That costs around ¥19,000 and is only valid in the registered prefecture, though it covers hunting for birds and other animals.
The prefectural registration fee for basic bird hunting runs about ¥7,000.
What can be hunted in Japan?
The Environment Ministry lists 29 species of birds and 20 species of other animals that can be hunted nationwide.
But in reality, what you can hunt depends on the rules of the prefecture. Some species in certain prefectures are not allowed to be hunted or can only be taken in small numbers. Hunters must check with the prefecture upon registering.
In principle, hunting season runs from mid-November until mid-February, while in Hokkaido it runs from October until the end of January.
But once again, different prefectures may have shorter or longer hunting periods, and all hunters need to get confirmation on the dates.
Species often hunted include wild boar, deer and bear, as well as birds ranging from pheasants to turtle doves and quail.
What actual hunting restrictions are there?
The Environment Ministry has a list of basic restrictions and specifies what constitutes illegal hunting.
Hunting either before daybreak or after sunset is not allowed. Nor is hunting close to residential areas. Guns cannot be modified for hunting certain species.
Given the tough ownership rules, how many hunters and how many registered firearms are there throughout Japan?
As of 2010, there were about 190,000 people with hunting licenses (including those for using nets and traps), of which 122,000 were 60 years old or above. This is down from 518,000 in 1975.
As of 2011, according to police, permits were issued for about 220,000 hunting guns, of which 35,000 were rifles. This figure does not include nearly 27,000 air-powered guns like BB guns, which are also used by hunters.
Can hunters sell their game to restaurants or is it merely for personal consumption?
A licensed butcher at a licensed butcher shop can prepare and sell wild game on-site to restaurant customers, but there are numerous online sites that sell venison and wild boar.
Sacca notes that this differs from the U.S., where, due to concerns about health and a desire to ensure stable wildlife populations, the sale of wild game is largely prohibited.
How many gun-related accidents and deaths occur in Japan?
According to the National Policy Agency, licensed guns, including air rifles, were used to kill 11 people, including five suicides, in 2011. There also were 28 gun-related accidents, mostly involving hunters.
Illegal guns, mostly handguns, were used to kill seven people and injure 11 others that year. The vast majority of the incidents were related to yakuza or other gangs.
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