Last year saw crime rates in Japan swing upward for the first time in 20 years. Writer Alex K.T. Martin joins us to discuss the new types of crime that are popping up, while news editor Tadasu Takahashi gives us a rundown on the language being used to describe it. Also, reporter Elizabeth Beattie catches up on what happened at the G7 finance meeting in Niigata last weekend.

Hosted by Shaun McKenna and produced by Dave Cortez.

On this episode:

Shaun McKenna: Articles | Twitter | Instagram

Alex K.T. Martin: Articles | Twitter

Tadasu Takahashi: Articles

Elizabeth Beattie: Articles | Twitter

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Transcript note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.

Shaun McKenna  00:09  

Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I'm Shaun McKenna. Japan prides itself on several qualities — there are four seasons. Sure, there are four seasons everywhere in the world, but here they're really special. No, not sold? OK, how about crime? Japan has consistently ranked as one of the safest countries in the world, and considering the size of the population that's a pretty impressive flex. 

But after 20 years of falling, the crime rate in Japan has begun to rise. What's behind this sudden turn? We'll talk to Japan Times staff writer Alex K.T. Martin about it later on in the show. First, though, economy writer Elizabeth Beattie is back from the city of Niigata where she attended the G7 finance ministers meeting. The meet was one of several taking place in the run up to the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima this weekend, and we'll get a rundown of what happened from Elizabeth right after the swell of LLLL’s lovely theme tune.

Hi Elizabeth, welcome back to Tokyo and welcome back to Deep Dive. 

Elizabeth Beattie  01:15

Thanks, Shaun. 

Shaun McKenna  01:16

First off, how was the G7 finance ministers meeting? 

Elizabeth Beattie  01:19  

It was very interesting. There's definitely a sense of momentum around the event that you have these big world leaders kind of getting in and out of Niigata to discuss these major economic issues, but as media we only see a portion of the discussion, so we were kind of hungrily looking for any detail. 

Shaun McKenna  01:34 

How do you do that? 

Elizabeth Beattie  01:36  

Um, you try to try to make friends with people and be approachable and talk to sources as much as possible.

Shaun McKenna  01:43

So what would you say was the big takeaway or takeaways from the meeting itself?

Elizabeth Beattie  01:50  

I think one of the big takeaways was that political issues are going to continue to shape economic talks, Russia’s invasion into Ukraine was a big theme and sanction evasion was an area of concern, over the course of the meeting. Also, there was discussion about climate change and supply chains and, of course, the U.S. debt ceiling talks. So all these really big political issues that we were seeing in the news cycle, they kind of dominated the meetings in a sense. If we look at past G7 finance ministers’ and central bankers’ communiques, they're a lot more focused on financial tools, financial regulations and taxation frameworks. Whereas now we're really seeing those political issues really, really more in focus, and really overshadowing some of those discussions.

Shaun McKenna  02:36  

Hmm. Were there any important moments directly involving Japan at the Niigata summit?

Elizabeth Beattie  02:42  

Well, Japan was playing host to the event so any moves from Japan were definitely under the magnifying glass. Something which came up during the press briefing afterwards was the Japanese finance minister declining to mention China by name when discussing supply chains, and that was viewed by some as an omission. And the reason why that's significant is China is the largest trading partner for many major economies, and it's documented as increasingly using economic coercion as a tactic, so using its economic might. And Japan sidestepping mention of China felt quite significant, although it's expected to be called out more explicitly in the upcoming Hiroshima summit.

Shaun McKenna  03:26  

Finally, what was security like in Niigata? Can you give anyone living in Hiroshima a sense of how security might affect them this weekend?

Elizabeth Beattie  03:34  

I would say security was quite pronounced with scene security being a bit of a talking point and the lead up to these G7 events, particularly following that earlier attack on Prime Minister Kishida. So when I arrived by shinkansen, rubbish bins were kind of covered up in an attempt to mitigate, I gather, against bomb threats. And as soon as I exited the station, I could see clusters of police officers everywhere. There was a large number of officers around, forming roadblocks across various points, particularly in the areas where meetings were being held. So when I arrived at the venue and gained my press pass, and then basically had to walk through a similar setup to an airport kind of scanner, but that was only because I was going into an event where officials were. Basically once I had a press pass, it was fairly easy to navigate. But the finance minister, Shunichi Suzuki, did thank the city of Niigata for playing host to the event, and he did mention that traffic congestion had been, had been a bit of a symptom. So that's something to keep in mind is maybe be wary of the size of the bags you're carrying. That's also a point of consideration and maybe just factor in some extra travel time.

Shaun McKenna  04:42  

Right. So, good tips. Elizabeth Beattie, thanks for stopping by Deep Dive. 

Elizabeth Beattie  04:47  

Thanks, Shaun. 

Shaun McKenna   04:48  

You can read more of Elizabeth's reporting and analysis on the G7 and other financial topics at When we come back, we'll be talking about crime.

Shaun McKenna   05:07 

Every Friday, The Japan Times runs a feature about language for our Bilingual page. We get translators and Japanese language professors to write about stuff like which prepositions will help you sound more natural when speaking, or buzzwords or coverage of the kanji of the year event in December. The page does well in part because Japanese teachers seem to read it so they can use it to teach private lessons. I suspect this because if we ever make a mistake, Japanese teachers are usually the first to tell us about it. One of our news desk editors, Tadasu Takahashi, also writes for the section from time to time, his approach to it tends to be that he'll see a Japanese term popping up in the news more and more, and he'll want to explain it to the readership. A while back, he wrote something on “yami baito.” Here's Tadasu telling us what it means.

Tadasu Takahashi  05:51  

So “yami baito,” the term is a combination of “yami,” which means “dark,” and “baito,” which means “part-time job.” That word, “baito,” actually comes from the German verb “arbeiten,” which means “to work.” In Japan, though, “baito” is used to describe a part-time job.

Shaun McKenna  06:09  

So the piece that Tadasu wrote was about how people recruiting for these yami baito, or dark part-time jobs, were using other Japanese linguistic codes to signal what the jobs were about, like the term “tataki okosu,” which means “to get someone out of bed.” That was being used as a stand-in to mean “robberies,” because that might be what you do. If you want to rob someone, you'd get them out of bed in the middle of the night. 

Tadasu Takahashi  06:33  

The Japanese media has done a number of stories in which a reporter will go undercover and follow yami baito posts. Inevitably, the story ends with the reporter revealing who they are and the recruiter saying they're desperate to get out of the situation they're in. One quote I found from my Bilingual piece was for a person caught up in these yami baito robberies, who said they were glad they had been caught since maybe now they'd be able to cut ties with the gang that employed them.

Shaun McKenna  06:57  

So who are the employers then, we got a glimpse of two such characters after they were caught running a robbery ring out of a prison in the Philippines. The so-called Luffy robberies are named after the alleged mastermind who went by the moniker “Luffy” —  named after the main character from the “One Piece” manga — and he or they are said to have sent instructions over a smartphone through the encrypted messaging app Telegram. Drivers were reportedly paid ¥800,000, which is about $6,150 U.S., and robbers were paid ¥1 million, which is about $7,370 per job. The Luffy robberies are thought to have been going on for a few years, and they've been linked to more than 50 cases of home invasion in Japan. In January, however, one of those robberies turned fatal. Four men between the ages of 19 and 52 have been arrested in connection to the robbery and murder of 90-year-old Kinio Oshio in the city of Komae in western Tokyo. The police later found the cars they'd rented with a smartphone inside one of them that had the messages from someone known as “Kim,” who is thought to be the alias of one of the Japanese nationals in that Philippines prison. The Luffy case has naturally caught the attention of the media as it carries all the hallmarks of a solid crime story: There's a teenage suspect, an elderly victim, social media and a dash of international intrigue. And then just last week, the country was glued to their social media feeds watching video of a brazen daytime robbery in Tokyo's posh Ginza district. Of the four suspects in that case, two are 19, one was 18 and the other one was 16. So, does Japan, a country that prides itself on being one of the safest countries in the world, have a crime problem. I'll be back after the break to talk about this with Japan Times staff writer Alex K.T. Martin.

Shaun McKenna  08:52

Alex, welcome back to Deep Dive.

Alex Martin  08:52  

Thanks, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna  08:53  

So my first question is a big one. Is crime getting worse in Japan?

Alex Martin  08:58  

Well, yes and no. Yes in that crime rates are on the rise, but no in the sense that they haven't come close to the peak they hit in 2002 when we saw around 2.73 million cases. But then it kept on decreasing until 2021, when we saw around 568,000 cases. And then last year, we saw the rise, it took us back up to 601,000 cases or so.

Shaun McKenna  09:21  

OK, there's a lot I want to ask about in that statement. First of all, take us back to 2002. What was going on in Japan at that time?

Alex Martin  09:29  

Well, during the late 1990s and the early 2000s, we witnessed plenty of gruesome, ghastly crimes, including the famous 1997 Kobe child murders. There was the Wakayama curry poisoning of 1998, then another famous family murder that happened in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, this was in 2000. So there was a lot of sort of horrendous things going on that were making the headlines back then. However, the same period also saw a surge in street crime as well as cases of burglary and property damage and these actually account for the majority of the crimes that were recorded back then.

Shaun McKenna  10:02  

Right, so we hit low in 2021, and then crime rates start moving up again. Do we know what caused this?

Alex Martin  10:09  

So yeah, there was a dip that maybe came from the pandemic, obviously, from people staying at home. But the rates had been going down for about 20 years or so, so the pandemic doesn't have as direct an influence. What could be more telling, perhaps, is that the rise came as we came out of the pandemic, or at least a stronger elements of pandemic-era life like staying at home, no late-night drinking spots being open and stuff like that.

Shaun McKenna  10:30  

Do you know how the police managed to get those rates down?

Alex Martin  10:33  

Right, so, in response, more surveillance cameras were deployed and local crime prevention lectures and neighborhood patrol groups were organized. And in 2003, what's called the Emergency Public Safety Program was launched. This is basically a wide-ranging policy that beefed up police personnel. It also established countermeasures for organized crime, terrorism and cybercrimes. Meanwhile, Japan's population peaked in 2008, and began shrinking while the proportion of those 65 and over, that continues to rise as the number of newborns slides. So the fall in crime, then it basically can be explained to a certain extent with the heightening of police presence, and Japan's graying demographics.

Shaun McKenna  11:13  

Right, so less people, less criminals kind of. 

Alex Martin  11:16

That’s correct. 

Shaun McKenna  11:17 

Let's get into this part now, your piece, “Are rising crime rates in Japan cause for alarm?,” it made the assertion that crime is up, but it's not so much the same kind of stuff that we maybe saw in 2002.

Alex Martin  11:28  

That's correct. So a third of the cases reported last year were street crimes. As pedestrian traffic started to increase coming out of the pandemic era. You also saw a rise in the number of, for example, bike thefts and cases of assault, which went up by 20.9% and 9.5% year on year, respectively. Cases of assault will include things like bar fights, for example. But then you have what the National Police Agency refers to as “serious crimes,” which jumped up by 8.1%, I think. This wasn't boosted by a rise in the number of homicides but rather sexual and indecent assault. In fact, homicides were down slightly in 2022, and I think it was 853 cases.

Shaun McKenna  12:12  

Well, first of all, glad homicides were down, but this rise in sexual and indecent assault, that's concerning. Over the course of the pandemic, we heard the term “shadow pandemic” being used. That refers to the notion that the stress of the pandemic would cause domestic abusers to act out more and, due to the lockdown, victims weren't able to escape their abusers. Did this shadow pandemic affect Japan?

Alex Martin  12:37  

Yes, the same thing happened in Japan, actually. The number of domestic violence consultations rose by 1,454 cases to a total of 84,496 cases in 2022. And that's a record high for the 19th consecutive year. The number of children referred to child consultation centers is, in suspected cases of abuse, that also hit a record high of 115,762, which is up 7.1% from the previous year's number. So that's quite a high bump, I think. I also spoke to professor Fumiharu Yamagata, who is an expert on child welfare, and he pointed out that a lot of cases of child abuse comes from the child having to witness domestic violence and basically the psychological abuse that entails. He also mentioned that in many cases, the parents or perpetrators hide the abuse by presenting themselves on especially social media in particular as living perfect lives. Also, of the cases referred to these centers, only 10% of domestic incidents and 1.8% of the child abuse incidents result in arrest.

Shaun McKenna  13:45  

So speaking of social media, your article mentions that another type of crime that is on the rise is cybercrime. So that would be things like ransomware attacks and phishing scams.

Alex Martin  13:55  

That's right, those rose by 160 to a total of 12,369 cases last year, which is a new record. I spoke to one guy for my story who said he fell for a cryptocurrency investment scam in early March, after being approached by a woman on social media. 

Shaun McKenna 14.12

Did he say what social media network? 

Alex Martin 14:15

Yeah, he did, but he asked me not to sort of reveal which one it was. But anyway, this guy is a doctor and he transferred nearly ¥1.5 million into a virtual currency exchange platform, but he couldn't withdraw those funds. He also says he still gets contacted by people trying to get him to invest more so this is a continuing thing, it seems like.

Shaun McKenna  14:36  

So, less high-tech than the special fraud on social media are the cases of special fraud involving good old-fashioned telephone. Alex, can you explain to us what the “ore ore sagi” is?

Alex Martin  14:48  

Right, so ore ore sagi, which translates to “it's me, it's me fraud,” it's been around for quite a while, at least over the past decade. I think you'd see signs all over the place saying be careful of ore ore sagi.

Shaun McKenna  15:00  

Yeah, I think I've seen those signs, actually, in convenience stores. 

Alex Martin  15:03  

Yeah, or if you go to a bank’s ATM, they would definitely have a little poster saying like, you know, “Ore ore sagi ni chūi,” you know, “Beware of ore ore sagi,” which essentially targets mostly older people. They receive a phone call by a family member, perhaps a son or a daughter, they would say, “Ore da yo, ore da yo,” “It’s me, it’s me,” without actually naming their names, and whoever's on the other side of the phone call would assume that this person is their family member. What happens is they would say, “Hey, Dad, I'm in trouble. I got into a car accident, and I owe the other guy ¥5 million,” or something like that, “And I need you to deposit this amount to this bank account by 12 p.m. today,” or something like that. And, you know, whoever's on the other side of the call would be alarmed, especially if this was a person they haven't contacted in quite a while, if it's like an estranged son or daughter, perhaps they would feel like, “OK, I got to do something,” they would run to the ATM, deposit the money to this bank account, which would end up going to them, to the con man. So it's like a fraud scheme that's been going for quite a while, and strangely, it hasn't decreased. Actually, I think the number of these special fraud cases soared by 20.8% in 2022, and over half, 55.3%, were attributed to the ore ore sagi fraud scheme. So it's been a thing and it's still going strong.

Shaun McKenna  16:26  

Right. Why do you think this is still so common in Japan? I mean, I guess it's tied into what you were talking about earlier with the amount of elderly people?

Alex Martin  16:36  

Yeah, definitely. So demographics is a huge reason behind this one I think, this particular phenomenon. The number of people over 65, it's approaching almost a third of the entire population. And I think another factor is that a lot of these older people, they live on their own, alone, in small apartments, perhaps, in Tokyo or elsewhere. So they're not in contact with their immediate family members, or son or daughters or siblings on a day-to-day basis. So if they do receive a call from someone sort of pretending to be their family members, I guess it's easier for them to be duped into believing that they're actually talking to their family members.

Shaun McKenna  17:24  

So if I'm hearing what you're saying, I guess, you know, kind of the aging demographic has helped Japan kind of lower crime rates over the past 20 years. However, you know, that's now led to the idea that they're kind of prime marks to be victims of crime in this kind of like new age.

Alex Martin  17:44  

That's correct. Yes. And we can't forget that the, I think, the number of crimes perpetrated by the older generation, or specifically those 65 and over, these have been pretty high over the past years. So they're both victims and perpetrators, I guess. And it's a natural thing, you know, because if you have the third of the population, who are 65 and over, they're naturally going to be responsible for a larger pie of crime and victims. So yeah, I talked to Wataru Zaitsu, who is an expert on criminology, and he sort of gave me a summary of what's happening. He essentially said that, you know, so the fall in crime over the years can be explained to a certain extent with the heightening of police presence, that I mentioned before, and Japan's graying demographics. So things that you mentioned. So he also added that Japan’s police forces, they need to adapt to this new era of digital crime, like the cybercurrency frauds, as well as the type of crime that rose in the pandemic, like domestic and child abuse. And looking ahead, or actually this is already happening at this moment, but I think he said the trend that he really notices that stands out right now is how crime is now not so much out in the open but happens inside as in where people can't really see them, either online or inside homes where child abuse or domestic violence cases happen. So I think this is one trend that he's noticing over the past years.

Shaun McKenna  19:05  

That's interesting, because it seems like there have been a few high-profile cases recently that have been very out in the open. And I'm thinking of those like alleged teenage robbers in Ginza last week, they were all over social media, or the two recent attacks on prime ministers, one of them being Shinzo Abe, who, you know, passed away in that attack, and the other one who's Fumio Kishida.

Alex Martin  19:28  

It's sort of too early to tell whether this is going to be a trend or if it's a one-off phenomenon. I mean, the assassination attempt and the assassination, and the burglaries are two different things. So I think it's sort of hard to combine them into one single phenomenon to sort of describe. However, one of the experts I talked to in the story. He mentioned something interesting, he said that so we had the pandemic-era over the past two, three years where people were staying home and online activity soared naturally. And now people are coming back out and you see these petty crimes: break-ins, theft, things like that. But this expert I talked to, he said, It's very short-sighted these crimes, it's not really thought out, like, you know, you can't just go out into Ginza and smash-and-grab at a … it was a watch shop, right? Yeah, I guess so, and expect to be not caught.

Shaun McKenna  20:19  

In full view of dozens of recording cell phones.

Alex Martin  20:23  

And the expert said that perhaps you know, the several years, the pandemic era and people just staying inside it sort of numb their sense of you know, what it takes to commit a crime and what entails in the aftermath of committing a crime. So a sense of reality, perhaps has eroded. And that was an interesting sort of perception or opinion, I heard among the experts I talked to. Not sure if it's correct or not, but perhaps it has something to do with these crises. And finally, I think we shouldn't forget that the number of crimes committed by the younger generation aren't really on the rise. Actually, they've been decreasing over the years, I think, yeah. However, that's not the impression your everyday Japanese person would have if they're watching the TV shows and watching the news, where they play up these crimes. So there's a big gap between public perception towards crime and what's actually happening. Last year, we did see a small bump in the number of crimes recognized, around 5%. Next year, is that going to continue? We don't know. My guess is considering the drop in crime during the early years of the pandemic, we might see the rebound continue for some time. However, I can't imagine the crime rate to go back up significantly over the next years, primarily due to the demographics and the police presence.

Shaun McKenna  21:36  

Right. Well, Alex Martin, thanks again for coming back on Deep Dive. 

Alex Martin  21:39

Thank you, Shaun. 

Shaun McKenna  21:43

My thanks again to Elizabeth Beattie, Tadasu Takahashi and Alex K.T. Martin for coming on this week's show. I'll put links to their stories in the show notes. But please, stop by to read even more of their work. 

Elsewhere in the news this week. It was pretty hot in Tokyo today, did you turn on your air conditioner? If you did, then that might not bode well for your bills this summer. On Tuesday, the government approved another electricity price hike, which comes as inflation in other sections of the economy also continues to be a problem. Depending on who your energy provider is, you could be in for a considerable hike, the lowest being a 14% increase from TEPCO and the highest being a 42% hike from the Hokuriku Electric Power Company, or Rikuden, which serves Toyota Ishikawa and the northern parts of Fukui and Gifu prefectures. Time to buy that kid's pool for the balcony to keep cool. 

In the meantime, you can help us pay our bills by telling a friend about the show and leaving us a rating or review on your preferred podcasting platform. Deep Dive is produced and edited by Dave Cortez with writing and research from Jason Jenkins. The outgoing track was written and produced by Oscar Boyd and our theme song is by the Japanese musician LLLL. Until next time, I'm Shaun McKenna, podtsukaresama.