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Japan faces up to a world of gun crime


As is often the case with breaking news stories, the on-site, real-time television coverage of the shooting at the Renaissance Sports Club on the evening of Dec. 14 in Sasebo City, Nagasaki Prefecture, was a flurry of vague incidentals and conflicting accounts.

The basic truth was stark enough to make an impression: A person dressed in camouflage-style clothing entered the club and started firing a gun, injuring several people, two of them seriously, and then fled into the night. Anything more specific was speculation.

But speculation was all that TV had, since the police were barely on the case at the time. The gunman was wearing a motorcycle helmet, or maybe it was a ski mask. He was tall or he was heavyset, or both — one witness described him as “well built.” Some said he entered the building and started blasting away indiscriminately, while others thought he acted purposefully.

When reporters asked how many shots were fired, one person said 30 or 40, another said fewer than 10. Some said the gunman looked “like a foreigner”; one even conjectured he was black.

Some of the witnesses appeared on TV, but most did not, and if anything was clear, it was that none of these testimonials could be called reliable. The information changed from one TV station to another. The foreigner angle was eventually dropped, but not before it was given some credence by TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station,” where that night’s guest commentator, veteran journalist Shuntaro Torigoe, explained it was natural for some people to think the shooter was not Japanese, since Sasebo hosts a major U.S. naval base, and recently there have been so many shooting incidents in America.

However, Torigoe added to this suspicion, perhaps inadvertently, by commenting on the gun that was used, saying that if the shooter had in fact fired off 30 or 40 rounds then he might have been using “a machine gun,” and though he didn’t say so, it’s obvious he was thinking that only military people have access to such weapons in Japan.

What makes this remark strange is not so much the underlying implication that a renegade American sailor had decided to carry out some bloody personal agenda, but that Torigoe knows nothing about guns. The police had already stated that the shooter was armed with a sandanju, a shotgun, and while the U.S. military does use such weapons, the bulk of the 300,000 privately owned firearms in Japan are, in fact, shotguns.

Torigoe wasn’t the only media person who didn’t really understand what a shotgun is and how it works. In the days since, the suspected shooter, a Japanese man who owned three shotguns, apparently killed himself later the same night. Meanwhile the press has been busy educating itself in matters to do with guns. Perhaps because the Japanese word “tama” is used for all ammunition, be it bullets, slugs or shotgun shells, people were understandably confused at what distinguishes a shotgun from other guns. On Sunday night, NHK spread this confusion to some of its foreign viewers when its English-language news broadcast said that the shooter had in his possession “2,700 bullets,” instead of the more accurate “2,700 shells.”

As an American who has never fired a gun much less owned one (which disqualifies me for citizenship in the eyes of many of my countrymen), I have nevertheless absorbed the lore and science of firearms by forced osmosis, and I found the media’s general ignorance of the subject surprising. No American newspaper would have ever had to print a tutorial on shotguns and shells as the Asahi Shimbun did on its front page last Monday. Had the reporters on the scene in Sasebo known anything about the mechanics of a sandanju, they would have realized that the shooter couldn’t have fired off 30 to 40 rounds in rapid succession.

There are people who will no doubt find comfort in the media’s implied ignorance, since it would seem to represent a popular sensibility that isn’t interested in guns. But disinterest can also be a sign of apathy, and another aspect of guns that the media has had to learn about since the Sasebo shooting is the legal side of firearm ownership in Japan.

The general impression one gets living in Japan is that only the police, soldiers and yakuza have guns. Of course, there are some hunters and sportsmen who own rifles, but they are a small group and the law regulates such ownership very strictly. Consequently, everyone wants to know how the suspected Sasebo killer was able to buy three shotguns and enough ammunition to blow away an entire neighborhood.

Apparently, it was easy. The laws may be strict, but their application and enforcement are not. A license must be obtained for each gun and renewed periodically, but these seem to be mere formalities. Various news reports cited instances of local police doing background checks on gun owners following complaints from neighbors, but such checks are pointless, since they are carried out after the licenses have been granted.

The only uses allowed for firearms are hunting and sports, but the authorities don’t check to see if the applicant really is hunting or skeet shooting — the alleged Sasebo shooter did neither. And while ammunition is also strictly regulated, it is more or less self-regulation. The suspected Sasebo shooter bought 1,000 shells at one time, though it’s against the law to possess more than 800. However, it isn’t against the law to sell that many at one time, and the owner of the store who sold the alleged shooter those 1,000 shells told reporters that he informed the man he would have to use 200 that day, otherwise he’s be breaking the law.

This is a common bureaucratic pattern in Japan: Regulations are treated more as road maps than as rules subject to active enforcement. Japan is still a very safe country when it comes to guns, a reality that has less to do with laws than with prevailing attitudes, which is why the Sasebo shooting received such breathless, blanket domestic coverage. Overseas, it barely merited mention.