The government and media would have you believe that Japan has lost its mantle as a safe country. Apparently we live amidst a spree of heinous crimes. Accurate? Not very, according to a new academic study. But before we get to that, let’s take stock of one alleged cause of this “crime wave,” this decade’s boogeyman, the foreign criminal.

In May 1999, the National Police Agency established the “Policymaking Committee Against Internationalization” (“Kokusaika Taisaku Iinkai”), with budgets for public warnings and periodical bully pulpiting. In 2000, the committee got to work coloring the national debate, developing policy against the inherent criminality of an internationalizing Japan.

Suddenly Japan was no longer “safe.” Fortified by biannual NPA reports, the media periodically served up shock-horror headlines (for example, the Sankei Shinbun of April 1, 2000, exaggerating a “six-fold rise” in foreign crime). Politicians (and even the emperor) called for tightened public safety, blaming “a million foreign murderers and crooks” (former lawmaker Etoh Takami on July 12, 2003) and “sneaky thieves” (Kanagawa Gov. Matsuzawa Shigefumi in December 2003).

Open flew the tax purse strings: After Tokyo Gov. Ishihara claimed (with evidence unclear) that “even the yakuza are scared to enter lawless Kabukicho,” it became Japan’s first neighborhood with universal surveillance cameras. Likewise the NPA’s research institute landed boondoggle money for “foreign criminal DNA analysis” at crime scenes (Zeit Gist; Jan 13, 2004). Despite criticism from the United Nations, the Immigration Department launched online “snitch sites” (Zeit Gist; March 30, 2004), where anonymous xenophobes could rat on a foreigner for any reason whatsoever.

Profiteering was not limited to the public sector. Miwa Locks rode the wave to advertise new “foreigner-proof” home security. As did Eichi Publishing, which only this month put out a glossy 128-page “mook” on “gaijin crime” (including photos of interracial couples engaging in criminally heavy petting).

But then the government and media scored an own-goal, during the 2002 World Cup. Their national “antihooligan” campaign wound up making life positively uncomfortable for many a foreign resident. The hooligans, meanwhile, never showed. Not to be outdone, Miyagi Prefecture Assemblyman Konno Takayoshi publicly pondered what to do about children born afterward of “foreigner rapes” (June 2001).The point is these anticrime putsches have caused quantifiable social damage. A Cabinet Survey released in April 2003 asked the public whether “foreigners should have the same protection of human rights as Japanese.” Only about half — 54 percent — said yes. This was a decline from 66 percent in 1998 and 68 percent in 1993. Never mind the underlying assumption behind this very survey: that human rights are an “option,” a matter determined by opinion polls. Thanks to the fanfared fear of foreigners, more people think foreigners are less rightfully human.

But the funny thing about this whole debate is the assumption of exclusivity. Many people seem to think that if foreigners are targeted, only foreigners are affected. Not really, because nobody benefits from a public panic, especially when it is not grounded in reality.

A new academic study on crime and the media by Thomas Ellis and Hamai Koichi published last month on Japan Focus ( www.japanfocus.org) quantifies a perception gap.

According to the report, recorded crime in Japan (regardless of nationality) has gone up 44 percent between 1995 and 2004. However, Japan has a comparatively “low crime rate, and an especially low rate for violent crime.” The rise is due not only to Japan’s economic slump, but also to more assiduous “victim support” and reportage of crime in general (that is, crime had been underreported in the first place).

But then the media misled. As Ellis and Hamai wrote: “The Japanese press . . . is presenting a partial and inaccurate picture of current crime trends,” where “the moral panic has had a very real effect . . . on public perception.” This is especially true since the Japanese public, like other societies, “rely more on media sources for opinions on crime than they do on objective sources.”

Comparing the number of murders with the number of articles on murder in any given year, they found no relationship in scale. For example, there were in fact very few Asahi Shinbun articles on murder in 1985. Yet there were some thousand plus articles in 2000, despite the later date’s lower murder rate.

The effect: “As with most comparable nations, the Japanese public’s fear of crime is not in proportion to the likelihood of being victimized. What is different is the scale of this mismatch. While Japan has one of the lowest victimization rates, the International Crime Victim Surveys indicate that it has among the highest levels of fear of crime . . .” “Some now claim that the panic perspective has become institutionalized in Japan, and that there has been a collapse of the pre-existing psychological boundary, dividing experience of the ordinary personal world, where crime is rare, and another hyperreal world, where crime is common.”

I understand the media doesn’t much like to criticize itself, especially since all outlets have made the occasional gaffe or sensationalized a hot story. But enough already. For the sake of journalistic integrity, it’s time some things were changed.

As the Ellis and Hamai report notes: “Rather than the rise in relatively trivial crimes, the press focused on homicide and violent crime, which are the types of stories with high ‘news value’ in Japan.” Particularly when talking about foreign crime, this “news value” changes with the side of the linguistic fence.

For example, the Mainichi Shinbun on Feb. 8 headlined in English: “Number of crimes committed by nonpermanent foreigners declines in Tokyo.” The same article’s headline in Japanese was “Foreign crime rises in the provinces: Chubu Region up 35-fold in 15 years.” Bipolar reportage. Which is the “news?”

Similarly, with Koizumi’s second Cabinet launch: On Sept. 22, 2003, the Yomiuri Shinbun printed two different profiles of Cabinet members and their policy proposals. The Japanese version led with “Olympic Laureate, National Security Agency Commission Chairman Kiyoko Ono desires policy against foreign crime.” The English version, which eschewed the headline, buried this in the third paragraph: “At a press conference Monday, Ono said that she would strive to make Japan the world’s safest nation again, by fighting various crimes-particularly those committed by juveniles and foreign residents.”

Even though the original Japanese doesn’t mention “juvenile,” or even “various” crimes. Is this to sweeten the sound of government directives for those being targeted? Even the abovementioned Etoh Takami comment, about “a million foreign murderers” was lost without translation. The number reported was “lots” (“ippai”).

What are the incentives for this muzzled watchdogism?A reporter recently told me about doing a story on a crime involving two Japanese and one Chinese. The editor wanted to make the headline “Chinese etc.” (“chuugokujin ra”) committed said crime. When asked if that were not a tad inaccurate, the editor apparently responded, “The impact is different.”

Quite. But “impact” is not what the respectable media should be aiming for. Nor police and policymakers. They should be informing the public with balance and integrity. Otherwise, as research is showing, the debate loses any grounding in reality, the public panics, and innocent people get caught up in flawed and prejudicial policy. And the line between the respectable press and the tabloids, including that “Gaijin Crime” mook, becomes further blurred.

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