Photo by Adam Jones, Ph.D./Global Photo Archive/Flickr
From an American perspective, Japan’s relationship with firearms is considerably restrained. The police force in Japan didn’t even carry handguns, instead arming themselves with sabers, until after the second World War. In the period of the Allies’ occupation following the war, it was Supreme Commander Douglas Macarthur who suggested that the Japanese police begin the practice of carrying handguns while on duty. The rules governing individuals’ use of firearms are also quite strict, as Japan approached gun control as a whole from a perspective of prohibition, the government (quite sensibly) realizing that fewer firearms in circulation would drastically reduce gun-related violence in the country.
What kind of guns do Japanese police carry?
According to Gun Professionals’ Satoshi Matsuo, from initial production starting up in 1961 to the 1990’s, a .38 double-action revolver known as the New Nambu M60 was the standard sidearm assigned to cops in Japan. In this period, about 133,400 were manufactured for police use, according to a 2008 article by Richard Jones in Jane’s Infantry Weapons 2007-2008. In addition, police in Japan are equipped with a device called a “protection sheet,” which is placed on the ground and used to roll up unruly suspects in what has become colloquially known as a “burrito arrest”, according to The Tokyo Tourist.
Compared with other developed countries, Japan’s level of gun violence is quite low. According to Nippon.com, Japan had a mere 22 gun-related crimes in 2017, and only three fatalities. Why are these figures so low? What has the country’s government done to mitigate gun violence? A number of factors are at play, mainly stemming from the turmoil suffered in the country in the first half of the 20th century.
Firstly, laws were enacted in that limit the ability of ordinary Japanese citizens to obtain firearms. In fact, according to Iain Overton, the executive director of Action on Armed Violence, “They are the first nation to impose gun laws in the whole world, and I think it laid down a bedrock saying that guns really don’t play a part in civilian society.”
Gun ownership in Japan
These laws are strict, discerning, and thorough, at least in comparison to the United States. In order to qualify for gun ownership, prospective gun buyers are required to “attend an all-day class, pass a written test, and achieve at least 95% accuracy during a shooting range test. In addition, there is a thorough background check, involving any past criminal activity and even interviewing those close to the gun buyer, such as family members and friends. This is all in addition to a rigorous mental-health evaluation. Finally, no handguns are allowed in the hands of the public. Shotguns and air rifles are the only firearms a non-police civilian is legally able to own. In order for the government to monitor a person’s fitness to own a firearm, the exam and shooting range test must be re-taken every three years.
Secondly, some believe that because of Japan’s history and culture, as well as the relatively late introduction of firearms to the country, the country on the whole suffers less from the violence and crime stemming from guns in other countries. Business Insider notes that, following the catastrophic loss suffered as a result of World War II, pacifism emerged as the dominant mentality steering Japanese foreign policy. At a societal level, too, pacifism was a return to Zen principles, embrace of Shinto (which was the state religion until the end of the second world war), and Buddhism.
Gun violence in Japan
With all this in mind, Japan has an average of less than ten homicides a year from firearms, and even when suicides and accidental discharge deaths are tabulated the number of total gun fatalities rarely, if ever, breaks twenty. From 2010 to 2018, Japan had a fatality rate of less than fifty people total, according to a report by the Japan Times, based on a white paper released by the government. Another statistic of interest is the shockingly small ratio of gun-owners to unarmed citizenry: about 0.06 out of 100 people in Japan own firearms for private use.
Crime in general in Japan has hit a 30-year low in recent years, according to another 2019 report by the Japan Times. Unfortunately, that same span of time has also seen an increase in domestic issues, such as spousal violence and child abuse, in addition to an uptick in crimes by the elderly, as the nation grows older faster than the younger generation is procreating.
Police shootings in Japan
Equipping the police force with firearms after WWII has not led to a rash of police shootings in the country. Rather, the statistics show a remarkable amount of restraint with regards to gun use by law enforcement. According to the most recent data available, as reported by Kyoto News and Japan Today, only two people were killed by firearm-equipped police officers in 2018. Japan averages 0.2 law enforcement-related gun fatalities per 10 million people.
Stricter gun laws in other countries
Japan’s gun laws put it in the company of other countries with restrictive gun control laws, with comparatively low gun-related fatalities as a result, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and several Nordic countries. In some countries, the ownership of firearms by the civilian population is even more limited. Countries like Cambodia, Singapore, and Eritrea enforce a no-tolerance policy, essentially barring gun ownership by private citizens with harsh penalties following any violations. In authoritarian China, the ownership and use of guns is restricted to select segments of the population.
The relationship of Japan to firearms is a clear-headed, even tentative one. This doesn’t seem to bother the population, who enjoy the relative safety and comfort of a generally nonviolent society, nor does the fact that police are armed lead to an outsize impact of firearm-related fatalities when discharged in the line of duty. While Japan has softened its pacifistic stance in recent years with regards to foreign policy, domestically speaking it remains a remarkably non-violent country.