KYOTO – Last week I walked to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to obtain a new passport for another 10 years. It is a great privilege and a heavy burden to carry this document of the country of my birth and place of my citizenship.
On the one hand, I have enormous freedom to move about the world with access to 174 countries and territories visa-free or on arrival. On the other hand, the world has a love/hate relationship with America, with which every American citizen is confronted when overseas.
The American abroad becomes the face of foreign and domestic policy. U.S. foreign policy is centered on war and the military; domestic policy is crime and guns. The dominant theme is violence, how much we engage in it or are entertained by it.
In the 1980s I had to explain the death penalty, U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s missiles and the gun culture as an exchange student in Germany. In the 1990s, my first trip to Japan, I had to answer if I had ever seen a dead body lying in the street. I was from one of America’s murder capitals — Washington — and the projected image of that city to Tokyo was more Wild West than Lincoln Memorial.
Las Vegas is known by various slogans — Sin City and the Entertainment Capital of the World (which it shares with Los Angeles). Last week, what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas. It went global, right to my classroom of Japanese students studying international relations.
I found myself explaining America’s gun culture to a group of 20-somethings who cannot fathom a country that would make lethal weapons so accessible and plentiful. The United States is awash in nearly as many guns as people. Guns are easy to obtain and in many cases, with little oversight. I needed a learner’s permit to drive at age 15, but if you want a rifle or shotgun in Nevada, you don’t need a permit to carry. Many gun owners in America buy from a friend or acquaintance, where three out of five do so with no background screening.
I’ve lived in New York and California, with much stricter gun control legislation. This makes no difference to America’s image in Japan. We may have some of the world’s best universities, Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Madison Avenue, but we also lead in violence in young hearts and minds. With every bleeding headline, they question the costs and benefits of study or travel abroad to the U.S.
“I do not want to go to America now,” one Japanese student wrote in response to my lecture. “I’m afraid and scared to go America, even though I want to go,” another wrote. I told them that it is normal to feel this way. America is not prone to give up guns. It’s not just a protected right in the U.S. Constitution; it is in our cultural DNA. The American rate of private ownership of guns is the highest in the world and many view guns as the great equalizer in conflict and government relations. We cannot imagine the police requiring a mental, drug and shooting test, knowing the physical location of a gun in the home, or conducting annual inspections, as is the case with hunting shotguns and rifles, the only firearms legally for sale in Japan.
Private ownership of a gun in Japan is not just extremely rare and difficult to obtain, but culturally unfathomable. Owning a gun is not viewed as a freedom equalizer. It is viewed as a social disruption to the smooth and peaceful rhythm of daily life.
While we mourn Las Vegas, Orlando, Charleston, Newtown, Aurora, Columbine, we are not Japan. Even with stricter gun control legislation, we will never be Japan. Which is why I asked my students to make a promise that they would never take their home country of Japan for granted. Be thankful that they live in a society where they are taught from classroom to home that you consider others before yourself. Preserving the collective good is valued more than the selfish interest. It is a teaching that we are in dire need of across the world.
To end my class, I shared the first two lines from my book, which sum up the first invitation I received from the government of Japan to come visit.
“I never chose Japan. Japan chose me.” I’m thankful for that choosing every day.
Nancy Snow is the Pax Mundi Professor of Public Diplomacy, Kyoto University of Foreign Studies and the author of “Japan’s Information War.”