What to Know About How Rare Gun Violence Is in Japan

Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 67, was shot and killed in the Japanese city of Naro with a homemade firearm on July 8 while he was campaigning for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on the street. The news was especially shocking considering Japan’s reputation as a country that values gun safety; gun sales and gun ownership have been severely restricted and regulated in the country for decades.

Japan is home to more than 125million people and experiences much less gun violence than the international rate. Japan’s gun deaths are typically in the single digits. According to the World Health Organization, there were nine firearm-related deaths in 2019. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Japan’s licensed firearm owner rate was 0.16 for every 100 residents in 2019.

“Even with police, they’re not armed in a militaristic way, as they are in some other countries. Police in Japan have access to guns, but they’re much more discreet,” Alison Young, a professor with expertise in Japanese governance at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, told TIME, “And guns are present in popular culture; movies, tv, manga, etc… but there’s a big divide between that and everyday experience.”

Here’s what to know about gun laws and safety in Japan:

Extremely stringent gun laws

The Japanese government enforced strict gun control regulations since the second half of 20th century. This has proven to be highly efficient. The basis of modern gun regulation in Japan is the Firearm and Sword Possession Control law, which was first adopted in 1958 and states that “no-one shall possess a fire-arm or fire-arms or a sword or swords.” There are few exceptions that grant gun ownership in the country, such as hunting, sport or industrial purposes. A background check is required for gun license applicants. They also have to undergo a mental evaluation. Gun owners are required to pass a written and range test. The license must be renewed every three years by gun owners.

“Basically people don’t have guns or think having a gun is an important thing to do unless they’re into hunting or shooting clay pigeons, which are about the only reasons you could be authorized to have a gun unless you’re a policeman,” Andrew Gordon, a professor of history at Harvard University who specializes in modern Japan, told TIME.

A 1995 amendment to Firearm and Sword Possession Control laws made it illegal for anyone to fire a weapon in public places. People who surrender illegal firearms to government can receive reduced sentences.

Japan already had fairly restrictive gun measures dating back to the 19th century, but the country’s heavy gun regulations began after World War II. Gordon pointed to Japan’s Allied, but primarily American, occupation after the war. In 1946, the government made a ban on gun ownership. Most orders came from the authorities in charge of the occupation, or they had to approve them. However, the 1958 legislation was created in response to an increase in gang activity after World War II.

Abe was shot to death with a homemade firearm

The suspect in Abe’s murder, Tetsuya Yamagami, was arrested minutes after the shooting. During a press conference on Friday, Nara Nishi police reported that Yamagami, 41, had served as a Maritime Self-Defense Force (essentially, the Japanese Navy) and that he confessed shooting Abe. Yamagami originally planned to set off explosives, but changed his plan and used a homemade gun, Japan’s Public Broadcaster NHK reported.

“It was apparently handmade and was 40cm long and 20cm high,” a Nara police spokesperson said of the gun at a press conference.

Police found several different models of homemade guns made out of pipes at Yamagami’s apartment and are investigating how he tested the guns and chose the most effective model, NHK reported. During the search, an investigator collected more than 10 cardboard boxes of suspected materials and evidence from Yamagami’s apartment, NHK also reported. Yamagami, who allegedly admitted purchasing materials online for the guns, said that he was targeting Abe because of his affiliations to a religious group. Officers in the Maritime Self-Defense Force receive education on gun handling and shooting, a possible indicator of Yamagami’s knowledge base.

The authorities expressed concern that the ex-prime minister might have been exposed to insufficient security.

“The background of this crime is not yet fully understood, but it is a sneaky brutality that took place during the elections that are the basis of democracy, and it cannot be forgiven. I blame you in words,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in a statement to the press after Abe was taken to the hospital, “The government wants to take all possible measures to anticipate and respond to any situation in the future.”

Continue reading: Looking Back at TIME’s Coverage of Shinzo Abe: ‘I Am a Patriot.’

Japan is a country where gun violence is very rare

The acceptance of gun reduction in the country is accredited to factors such as social norms centered around respect for authority and the government’s voluntary nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation initiatives in response to the atomic bombings that devasted Japan, according to an article published in the Asia Pacific Law Review. Additionally, Japan’s island geography limits the smuggling of illegal goods into the country.

Young and Gordon both say that violent crime does still occur, but it’s usually through means other than guns. Young listed knives, arson and planned car crashes in the average violent criminal’s arsenal.

“There is a huge hidden figure of crime,” Young says, “Certain crimes are less likely to be reported. The hidden figure of sexual assault is incredibly high because the processes for responding to sexual assault are not well-supported in Japan.”

Young described the unique system of koban as a community-policing system in which law enforcement officers are placed around communities to make them more accessible to their constituents and maintain good relationships with them. In an attempt to steal their firearms, many koban police officers have been attacked in recent years. To protect themselves, the officers were issued knife-proof-vests.

Japanese Politic Assassinations History and Yakuza

Abe’s assassination wasn’t the first of its kind in Japan. There have not been many notable assassinations of politicians in Japan, although they are rare. In 1932, Japanese Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi was assassinated, and in 1960 Abe’s grandfather, then Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, was severely injured during a stabbing, supposedly over the signing of a security treaty with America that garnered widespread protests across Japan. Inejiro, the leader of Japan Socialist Party was assassinated with awakizashi. This is a traditional weapon that is used to kill people.

“When there have been attacks that are politically motivated, most of them involve swords or knives, which are much harder to pull off. People still have managed to do that on some notorious occasions.” Gordon says.

Of Japan’s roughly dozen political assassinations and attempts at assassinations of well-known figures since 1901, only a handful involved firearms. The last political assassination was of Nagasaki Mayor Iccho Ito in 2007. Ito was attacked by senior members of an organized-crime network within the Yakuza. This is the largest Japanese organization-crime group. Ito was involved in real estate and other illegal activities, such as sex, gambling, extortion, and kickbacks. The man was apparently infuriated that the city wouldn’t compensate him for damage to his car.

“If you ask people, ‘Where are there guns in Japan?’ they would say, ‘Well the policemen have guns, but they don’t usually use them,’ and ‘The Yakuza have guns,’” Gordon says. “I think the general attitude in the Japanese public is that as long as gangsters are shooting each other, it’s not a huge problem, but if they start targeting other people then it is.”

The National Police Agency reported that two-thirds (33%) of shootings in 2006 were linked to gangs.

“In terms of organized crime, it’s suspected that there’s a great deal of turning away from criminal activity by Japanese police, not necessarily collusion or corruption, but kind of a belief in Yakuza self-regulation rather than a need for the state to be involved,” Young said.

Continue reading: Shinzo Abe Rewrote Japan’s Place in the World. He remained as a powerful broker up to the end

Japan is a great example of gun regulation

Countries worldwide have long viewed Japan’s legislation as the blueprint for safe gun regulation and crime reduction. Although Japan is thriving in comparison to other wealthy countries when it comes to crime, it’s impossible to eliminate gun violence completely.

“There are really obvious differences between Australia or America or Britain and Japan, but it’s also important to see the similarities in advanced developed nations. They all have organized crime syndicates and they’re often working in collusion or with the tolerance of police,” Young said. “There’s always a hidden figure of crime that’s never reported that often involves gendered violence, and there are weapons circulating outside regulation.”

Young emphasizes that it is important to highlight the similarities and differences between countries in order for governments to learn from one another and avoid tragedy. Japan’s thorough policy efforts have surely saved countless lives, but even in the model nation, there is work to be done.

“The killing of Abe Shinzo [emphasizes that] even if you don’t have your own gun, you can make one or steal one. Gun regulation is important but there’s always going to be something that escapes it,” Young says—though she notes that isn’t a reason not to regulate guns.

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