In an essay he wrote for Asahi Shimbun’s Internet magazine Webronza in June, professor Mikio Kawai, a specialist in “serious crime,” revealed the results of a survey he conducted last March among 1,456 “older” people. He asked the respondents if they thought juvenile crime was on the increase. Sixty-two percent thought it was going up, while another 21 percent said it was going up “a great deal.” Only 3.7 percent believed that the incidence of youth crime was on the decline.
According to National Police Agency statistics, juvenile crime has been going down since 2003. It is crime among elderly people that is going up, mainly as a result of income loss. Kawai says this perception of youth crime is not exclusive to Japan. The older a person gets, the more he or she tends to exaggerate crime statistics and think that things were better in the good old days.
But that doesn’t explain the huge percentage of people who think young people are becoming more dangerous, and he blames the media, which fixates on juvenile offenses, especially those characterized by brutality, such as the gratuitous killing of a junior high school boy in Kawasaki several months ago, allegedly by several of his slightly older friends.
“If the role of the media is to make the public understand what’s going on,” Kawai writes, “then they’ve completely failed.”
Many media outlets complain that the Juvenile Act, implemented just after World War II at the urging of the occupying Americans, prevents them from covering crimes involving minors. Article 61 of the law states that minors accused of a crime cannot be covered in any way that might lead to their identity being revealed. Some media claim the law is unconstitutional, though its reasoning is clear. Since minors are by definition in a state of development, they can be rehabilitated, and revealing their names will make it more difficult for them to re-enter society after rehabilitation.
Whatever the merits and demerits of the law, it has become ineffective in the Internet age. In the case of the Kawasaki murder, anonymous persons with access to such information posted names and photographs of the three suspects, and at least one weekly magazine reprinted them, saying that since the information was already out there, they couldn’t ignore it. Kawai’s main complaint is that the press only covers such crimes up until the trial, because after that point they are effectively barred from court proceedings owing to the Juvenile Act. Consequently, the public only knows the speculative aspects that precede the supposedly factual interrogation of the case.
The kind of media that does this sort of “irresponsible reporting” is also the kind that actively pursues juvenile crime stories because they are dramatic and appeal to the public’s basest fears. Juvenile crime sells, so it’s not in the press’ interest to dwell on the decline in incidents involving minors. That’s how the press works, but the government also seems to be taking advantage of the misunderstanding; or, perhaps, it has fallen victim to it.
In April, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party organized a panel to study reducing the age for which suspects of serious crimes can be tried as adults. The idea is that since the government was lowering the voting age from 20 to 18, the age for criminal trials should be lowered to 18 as well, though according to Kawai and other experts, the LDP simply wants to curry favor with voters who, thanks to the media, are convinced that Japan is going trough an epidemic of juvenile delinquency.
TV personality Jiro Shinbo is very much in favor of prosecuting young offenders as adults. During a discussion on the Nippon Hoso News radio show, Shinbo seconded Kawai’s sentiments by saying that since the press was locked out of the Kawasaki coverage due to the Juvenile Act, web crazies controlled the narrative. Under such circumstances, “it’s easy to lie and difficult to tell who’s lying.” If the press were allowed to cover the case openly, then the public could expect a “responsible” accounting of the incident. He claims that Japan is the only country in the world that has such a law, which isn’t true. Great Britain, for one, also restricts coverage of juvenile offenders. He mentions the rape and murder of a mother in Yamaguchi in 1999 by a man who was a minor at the time. Thanks to pressure from the victim’s husband the perpetrator was given the death sentence, though at the time of the original trial the mainstream media did not mention his name or describe what happened in court, which Shinbo thinks is absurd.
Shinbo wants juvenile cases to be treated as adult cases for the sake of public knowledge, but he neglects to discuss the real purpose of the Juvenile Act, which, in principle at least, is designed to keep minor offenders isolated until they are no longer deemed to pose a threat to society. If the government and the media have their way and the age of majority for criminal trials is lowered, the effect will be the opposite of what they say they want, which is to punish juvenile criminals and keep them from harming law-abiding citizens.
In a monologue on his YouTube channel, educator Kunihiko Takeda explains that under the Juvenile Act, a minor offender is sent to a reformatory for a longer period of time than an adult criminal would spend in prison for an equivalent crime short of murder. That’s because true re-education takes time. If a youth is sent to prison, not only will they not receive rehabilitation, they will live among older criminals who may influence them. When the youth gets out of prison they will be branded an ex-con, making it difficult to find work, and likely will turn to crime. This is something the media never discusses, since the public doesn’t want to hear about rehabilitation, only punishment. But if younger people are sent to prison, recidivism will increase and so will crime.
So the government should be careful what it wishes for. The media, of course, will hardly mind. More crime means more sales.