It’s almost impossible to get to a gun in Japan, and selling one or owning one is a serious crime. Fire the gun? Possibly life imprisonment. Gun-control laws are taken so seriously that police will pursue a violator all the way to the grave — and maybe beyond.

The rationale for this is simple: “Of course, guns don’t kill people; people kill people — guns just make it a lot easier to kill a lot of people. That’s why Japan bans them and that’s why my job was catching people with guns and putting them in jail. Usually, long before they could ever put their finger on the trigger.”

Those are the words of a retired Kanto-region police detective with more than 25 years’ experience pursuing cases involving violations of the Firearms (& Swords) Control Law. Four of those years were in the Organized Crime Control Division Five, whose sole purpose is to handle drugs or weapons cases, nothing else.

In a long interview, this former officer who I will call Detective X because he requested anonymity for safety reasons, went on to explain just how seriously gun control is taken in Japan — offering information I followed up with further research.

“In Japan, no civilian is allowed to have a gun,” he stated simply. “In order to prevent atrocious crimes using firearms, possession of small arms was banned in 1965, with strict penalties for violations of the law. As time has gone on the penalties have increased and every year we try to drive down the number of people owning guns.”

Japan does allow the possession of hunting rifles and air guns (for sporting use), but the restrictions and checks are extremely strict.

“You have to bring your rifle in every year for inspection. You have to pass a drug test. You can’t have a criminal record. A doctor has to certify you’re mentally and physically healthy. You have to actually go to the firing range and show that you can use the weapon. If you have any sort of issue, we’re going to take away your firearms,” Detective X said.

“Sometimes, police officers even go to the neighborhoods where a gun owner lives and interview neighbors to make sure the owner isn’t causing problems or having issues with his spouse,” he added.

However, the focus is not only on ensuring gun owners don’t misuse their weapons, but also on getting rid of what the police call nemuri-ju (sleeping guns).

“There are not many hunters left now and many people get too old to use their weapons. If they can’t fire them properly, they get taken away. The fewer guns that are out there, the safer Japan is. That’s how we look at it,” Detective X explained.

The police checks are severe. In July 2008, a 45-year-old white-collar worker on the island of Shikoku who tried to renew his shotgun registration using a forged medical certificate was arrested following extensive checks on charges of forgery and violations of the firearms-control law.

According to the National Police Agency’s 2012 White Paper on Crime, in 2011 there were 246,783 licensed firearms in Japan, and 122,515 licensed owners out of a population of more than 126 million. In the same year, 27 people were denied permission to own a weapon, and 95 others had their permits taken away. Compare these figures with 2009 — when there were 299,939 licensed firearms and 142,294 licensed owners — and it’s clear these numbers are falling. So, too, are the number of shootings and gun deaths.

In 2002, there were 158 shootings in Japan and 24 deaths. Last year there were 45 shootings and eight deaths — and of the 45 shootings, 33 were yakuza-related.

“Japan is basically a place where only yakuza and cops have guns,” Detective X stated. “We fire our guns less, so most of the shootings in Japan are yakuza versus yakuza — and as long as the yakuza are killing each other, the general public and the police didn’t seem to mind. But not anymore. There have been too many stray bullets.”

The retired cop then noted that even the yakuza don’t like to use guns these days — because the penalties are too high.

A turning point was the Dec. 26, 1997, arrest of Kaneyoshi Kuwata, a boss of the powerful Yamaguchi-gumi gang, for illegal possession of firearms along with one of his henchmen. Acting on a tip, police blocked off all the roads in Tokyo’s glitzy Roppongi district and cornered Kuwata’s convoy of Mercedes. They then searched all the cars and, when they found a pistol in one of them, Kuwata was — in a precedent-setting legal move — arrested as an accomplice on gun-possession charges. After a long court battle, he was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Under current laws, if a low-level yakuza is caught with a gun and bullets that match, he’ll be charged with aggravated possession of firearms and will then face an average seven-year prison term. Simply firing a gun carries a penalty of three years to life. And for the “accomplice” reasons above, a yakuza boss may decide a death sentence is more appropriate if his thug miraculously gets released on bail before going to jail.

One mid-level yakuza boss told me, “Having a gun now is like having a time bomb. Do you think any sane person wants to keep one around the house?”

The police are not given a free hand in using guns either. Internal controls make it very difficult for a gun or even a single bullet to fall into the hands of criminals.

“When we go to the firing range, we get an allotted number of bullets, Detective X said. “When we’re done firing, we collect the shells and return the gun. If one shell is missing, the police station goes into a panic.”

Then the former officer waxed a little nostalgic. “Because of all the paperwork, in the old days sometimes we didn’t even take guns with us on raids of yakuza offices. I almost got my head blown off once because of that. … The guy had his gun in the dresser next to his futon. After that I made sure we carried guns with us on all our raids.”

However, Detective X said police sometimes misuse their weapons: “A few years ago, an officer on duty used his gun to kill himself — clearly non-designated usage, so that’s a crime.” He was charged posthumously to publicly show that even the dead can’t get away with breaking the firearms laws, and to shame his family. It may seem like overkill but it drives home the point.

“You can’t easily hold up a convenience store or shoot someone to death if you don’t have a gun,” Detective X put it in a nutshell. Unlike in the United States, that’s Crime Prevention 101 in Japan.

Jake Adelstein is an investigative journalist and the author of best-selling “Tokyo Vice.” He also contributes to The Atlantic Wire and the Japan Subculture Research Center (www.japansubculture.com), and is a Polaris Project Japan board member. He can be contacted at jakeadelstein@me.com.

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