National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Dealing with gun issues in a nation with few guns

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

Japan’s reputation as a country relatively free of gun crime is borne out by official statistics. In terms of individuals charged with crimes committed using firearms, the 2018 white paper issued by the National Police Agency listed eight homicides in 2017 — all of which involved members of crime syndicates — and five armed robberies (of which two involved gang members).

The last year in which the number of homicides by firearms exceeded a single digit was 2014 (with 13 incidents).

Apart from crime involving guns, the white paper reported 13 fatalities in 2017, of which 11 were believed to have been suicides.

The 2017 body count is all the more amazing, considering that from four years ago, Japan has found itself in the crosshairs of an ongoing gang war. A schism in the nation’s largest crime syndicate, the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi, has led to heightened tension, with rival gangs in Tokyo and elsewhere reportedly attempting to form new alliances or exploit the vacuum.

Some might be inclined to think that — just like in a Mario Puzo story — Japan’s gang members would “go to the mattresses” (that is, move away from their family homes) and prepare to shoot it out in barber shops, restaurants and apartment elevators.

Indeed, a few decades ago, when the Yamaguchi-gumi was previously rocked by internecine violence after a faction rejected the gang’s new boss and broke away to form the Ichiwa-kai, the casualty count over an 18-month period reached 18 dead and 47 wounded.

Thanks to tougher laws, declining ranks of aging gang members, full employment and proactive police efforts to crack down on gangs, the past four years have pretty much been a “sitzkrieg” — warfare marked by a lack of aggression.

Japan’s Constitution has nothing like America’s Second Amendment, and its current laws regarding ownership of firearms and swords essentially preserved regulations put into force by the Allied Occupation at the end of World War II. An article by MSN News estimated the ratio of firearm ownership in Japan is roughly 0.6 out of every 100 citizens, as opposed to 88.8 out of 100 in the United States. According to the white paper issued by the National Police Agency, the number of legally owned firearms in 2013 totaled 236,979 (including 159,574 shotguns and 32,136 rifles). In 2017, the figure had fallen to 206,306, of which 138,383 were shotguns and 29,506 rifles).

Gun ownership in this country is discouraged by draconian regulations. By virtue of owning a shotgun or rifle, you waive your right to privacy; police have the right to appear unannounced at your doorstep to confirm that the firearm is being correctly stored according to stringent regulations (in a sturdy concealed locker) and that its ammunition is stored separately. (Using a firearm to defend one’s family from invaders is out of the question.)

The declining number of legally owned firearms has actually become something of a problem because, in addition to fewer people who hunt for sport, some rural residents are being overrun by growing populations of wild boar, monkeys and other animals, which damage crops and occasionally pose a physical threat. As a result, concerns have arisen that Japan might not have enough guns.

Whatever feelings — positive, negative or neutral — the average citizen may harbor toward the police, it is safe to say that the notion of being shot dead by an officer of the law exists only in the remote depths of his subconscious, if at all.

While certainly not enough to inspire a movement along the lines of Black Lives Matter, however, cases do occur when police officers in Japan draw their sidearms (infrequently), fire off a shot (extremely uncommon), and injure or kill a suspect (extraordinarily rarely).

Writing for the December issue of investigative magazine Kami no Bakudan (Paper Bomb), journalist Masakatsu Adachi listed dates, locations and particulars for 18 cases over the previous five years in which a police officer shot and killed, or wounded, a suspect. The incidents were distributed throughout the country, from rural areas such as Niigata Prefecture to two each in Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka. Five occurred in or adjacent to a police box.

The number appears to have picked up, with at least seven incidents last year. Behind the increase, Adachi points to a revision in the protocol concerning gun use by police officers issued by the National Police Agency back in December 2001, to the effect that firing a warning shot would no longer be required. This was because officers generally found the factors requiring such a snap judgment were too vague to process when under immediate threat.

When the 2001 revision was announced, the Mainichi Shimbun voiced guarded agreement. “With the rapid increase in violent incidents, hesitation in use of a firearm may lead to cases of officers being killed in the line of duty or suffering injuries,” the paper said. “The purpose (of the revision) is to dispel officers’ hesitance toward the use of their firearms out of concern over accidents.”

Summing up his article, Adachi wrote: “We should not allow ourselves to forget that police officers, as part of their work to protect public safety, must confront dangers on a daily basis. Nevertheless, they must be able to prove their use of a firearm was justified. After all, power is in the hands of the authorities, leaving citizens with no option but to comply.

“The decision by an officer to use his sidearm is not at his or her free discretion but in accordance with the law. Even when gun usage is compliance with the Police Duties Execution Act, such use must be held to the minimum required to achieve the officer’s objective.”

Even a country with practically no guns, it seems, must still deal with gun problems.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.