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This year’s white paper on crime opens, on the first page, with the proclaimed aim of restoring Japan as “the safest country in the world” and closes, on the final page, with the expressed determination to achieve this goal. The report seems to convey the Ministry of Justice’s concern and sense of tension over the deterioration of public order in the country.

The question is how security can be restored to citizens’ lives. The ministry suggests various prescriptions, but does not indicate, in the report at least, what safety checks exist today to help effect this public order.

According to the white paper, with regard to ordinary crimes excluding traffic offenses, the number of cases recognized by the police as well as the incidence of offenses per 100,000 population gradually increased after hitting a low around 1973 — at the end of the period of high economic growth.

Although the total number of recognized cases last year declined for the first time in eight years to about 2.79 million, down 2 percent from the previous year, the number of recognized “heinous” crimes increased: homicide by 4 percent, robbery by 9 percent. These figures certainly indicate a worsening of the perceived public order.

One important remedy proposed in the white paper involves the treatment of criminals. With up to 60 percent of those who do prison time committing offenses again after their release, the report says the improvement, correction and social rehabilitation of such persons will lead to the protection of social tranquillity.

This year’s white paper uses many vivid photographs to describe prison conditions that the Justice Ministry previously had been rather reluctant to disclose. Community cells are shown with mattresses for two to six people, and with bunk beds and mattresses for seven or eight people. Of the 72 prisons in Japan, 64 are overfilled. Last year the average occupancy ratio was 105 percent. This means conditions are cramped for everyone, making it easy for dissatisfaction to boil over. It is difficult under these conditions for inmates with the potential to be rehabilitated to reflect properly on what they have done.

In the Netherlands, where the penal system is considered advanced, prisons make efforts to abide by the principle of one cell per inmate, the aim being to protect prisoners from the harmful influence of other inmates. In Japan, urgent efforts are needed to solve the problem of overcapacity.

The operation of Japanese prisons today is based on the Prison Law formulated during the Meiji Era. Moves are now gaining momentum within the government to revise this outdated law for the first time in a century. Remedies suggested by the white paper will not be effective unless we quickly begin building prisons that conform to modern concepts on prisoner rehabilitation. Improvement in prison management alone will not suffice. It is important for revisions to the law to take into account inmate privacy.

The age in which a “safe” society was measured in terms of police arrests and the punishments meted out has ended. In 2003 the arrest rate for ordinary criminal offenses was at 38 percent, the lowest level since 1945. We can no longer expect arrest rates of more than 80 percent as we had in the past.

The white paper cites the qualitative change that has taken place in society, including the decline of familiar structures that used to deter crime. In the past, unofficial social controls characterized Japanese society in the form of family bonds, social mores based on shame and respect, and an attitude of cooperation with law-enforcement authorities. In modern society, these controls do not function as well as they once did.

Can these or comparable safety checks be restored? This is a major political issue. However much we enact legislation and build new facilities, though, it is doubtful that we will ever recover in full the former culture of social controls.

So, one alternative idea is to develop a crime-prevention network appropriate for the present age. Communities must look after their own security. We will not be able to realize a truly safe society until local governments, neighborhood associations, schools, companies and other community groups become aware of this fact and begin to take action. Communities must hasten to adopt countermeasures that are suited to local conditions.

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