For those who read and watch the Japanese press, these are scary times. Foreign crime is allegedly on the rise, members of the new Koizumi Cabinet are making clear policy statements against it, and the National Police Agency is ready for a new push.

This is despite incontrovertible evidence that foreign crime rates are actually lower than those of Japanese.

Of course, Japan’s overt stoking of public fear of foreigners is not in itself news — it has been going on for years.

However, the problem this time around is that the fearmongering is not merely another fad. It may be about to gel into public policy.

With the most recent election within the Liberal Democratic Party for a new leader, all four candidates in a Sept. 18 TBS TV debate offered their policy visions for foreigners, including Japanese language tests for new entrants, crackdowns on crime, etc. In other words, dealing with the foreign element in society was as much a policymaking litmus test as, say, dealing with bloated public works or rekindling national growth.

Foreign crime policy

Koizumi was re-elected on Sept. 20 and two days later the new Cabinet was announced. No fewer than three Cabinet members (Justice Minister Daizo Nozawa, Public Management Minister Taro Aso and National Public Safety Chair Kiyoko Ono) appeared on NHK talking about foreign crime in their first policy statements.

Nozawa talked about how Koizumi has charged him with making Japan the “world’s safest country” again. Ono was the most specific — saying that foreign crime and youth crime were among her policy priorities.

Meanwhile, news stories on foreign criminals are commonplace. One two-hour show, aired nationally on NTV during prime time on Sept. 16, 2003, had cameras following police on the beat (a la the American Fox Network show “Cops”). More than a quarter of the airtime was devoted to foreign crime alone (with no interaction between police and foreigners except to arrest them). Rightwing Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, came on after every foreign-specific segment to remark on, inter alia, the cruelty of Chinese crooks and the need for more police.

The topic of foreign crime is seasonally recycled. The National Police Agency supplies the media with regular updates on any rise in the crime rate (about once every six months, going quiet when crime rates go down.) Result: The public get fresh scare showers about rising crime.

Unfortunately, very little has appeared in the Japanese media to temper things — like comparisons between rising Japanese and foreign crime rates. Pity. This would reveal that the foreign crime rate is less — far less — as a proportion of the population than the Japanese rate.

But what of the data on foreign crime?

The National Police Agency had its most recent White Paper on foreign crime available for download from its Web site (www.npa.go.jp) conveniently in time for the new Koizumi Cabinet. One look indicates that, yes, after a dip in 2000 and 2001, both the number of foreign crimes and foreign perpetrators have increased.

What is still left out:

The number of registered foreigners in Japan is also increasing year on year: From 1,778,462 in the beginning of 2002 to 1,851,758 souls by the end (www.moj.go.jp). More people means more potential criminals. So statistics detailing only foreign crime rates both in raw numbers and in percentages only tells half the story.

Postwar crime high

The other half is this: The number of crimes regardless of nationality in Japan in 2002, according to this paper on Sept. 23, 2003, was 2.85 million, a postwar record high. However, since the Japanese population is not really increasing, the rise in the Japanese crime rate is more marked than that for foreigners.

Moreover, the number of crimes committed in 2002 by foreigners was 1.39 percent of the total. Given the fact that the number of registered foreigners (those on one-year visas and above) is 1.5 percent of the total Japanese population, this means that foreigners are less likely to commit crimes on average than Japanese.

Let’s mitigate that even further: Note that crimes committed by foreigners also includes visa violations — crimes that Japanese by definition cannot commit, which should be caveated out for a better comparison of crimes committed by everybody. Since visa violations constitute up to a third of the total of crimes committed by foreigners, the rate for crimes committed by foreigners that are similar to those committed by Japanese can drop to around 1 percent of the total.

While we’re at it, how about those visa overstayers so often bandied about as on the rise? According to the most recent data from the Immigration Bureau (available at any Nyuuyoku Kanrikyoku office as a free orange pamphlet), the number of illegal aliens has fallen every single year without fail since 1993.

Serious flaws

Hence upon proper examination, the whole statistical basis behind the push to curb foreign crime is flawed and distorted to the point of being plain wrong.

The cause of this statistical manipulation on the part of the police and politicos is to a large extent, economic.

In May 1999, the “Policy Committee Against Internationalism” (“Kokusaika Taisaku Iinkai”) was formed within the National Police Agency with the stated aim of drafting policy against foreign crime and their syndicates. This is the organization producing friendly neighborhood warnings about foreign miscreants, which are plastered beside ATMs nationwide.

What is one goal of any government organization? To justify its budget. What better way in this case than by stirring up fear of crime? This tactic worked very well during the World Cup in 2002, particularly when the promise of hooligan riots due to the Argentina-England game provided a budget to fly 3,000 mainland police to Hokkaido for a week, as well as to hire three ferries to cart thugs back down south. How much money was spent to arrest a total of 11 people (two foreigners) during that whole week of games in Hokkaido? Uncertain.

Most Japanese, though very few people overseas, know that clearance of crimes in Japan (meaning finding the perpetrators for every crime committed) is now down to around 20 percent — a postwar low and a shock for those expecting Japan to be the same old clean, safe place. This is in part due to a long standing economic downturn in the provinces, and a slow but perceptible breakdown in respect for property by Japanese people.

But that is not what we hear about. It’s much easier to say the foreigners are responsible.

Indeed, during a Q & A session following a speech given to the PGL Conference at Seisen University on Sept. 27, Diet member Mizuho Fukushima (Shamintou, Kanagawa) remarked that she is quite aware how the government is fudging statistics to create a culture of fear related to crimes committed by foreigners. Consider, then, a normal public reaction. If police were to tell us that Japanese crime is out of control — people would criticize the police for not doing their job.

Easy target

However, if they say the same about foreign crime, public attitudes are less antipathetic. After all, foreigners shouldn’t be here in the first place if they’re going to make trouble (and what policeman can anticipate what heinous crimes foreigners will commit?).

The point is that foreigners are a much softer target, and it is far easier for the police to shift the focus on them instead of on the other 99 percent of criminals in Japan.

Given a general rise in crime,a reasonable case could be made for more cops on the beat. However, the clear and present policy push to target foreigners is not only unfounded statistically, but also has been up to now half-baked and arbitrary in its application.

Good public policy needs common sense, but it has been sorely lacking in Japan so far.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.