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Thursday, May 3, 2007

Japan holds the line against gun violence


Special to The Japan Times

On the morning of April 17, I received an apprehensive telephone call from a Japanese friend, a former employee of a foreign TV news bureau here.

Initial bulletins from Blacksburg, Virginia, were reporting that the shooter at Virginia Tech appeared to be a young Asian male. "Do you think he could be Japanese?" she asked.

I unhesitatingly ruled this out. First of all, I told her, the percentages were completely against it. When it comes to gun-related crimes abroad, Japanese are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators.

The shooter as it turned out was a South Korean national who had grown up in the United States. But just a day later, Nagasaki Mayor Itcho Ito was shot and killed by a member of a local criminal syndicate. And three days afterward, the broadcast media gave blanket coverage to a 15-hour standoff between police and an armed gangster in the Tokyo suburb of Machida.

Based on these incidents, some might assert that Japan is in no position to criticize gun violence other countries. Statistics, however, would indicate otherwise.

According to the 2006 Police White Paper, in 2005, Japan had a grand total 19 firearms-related homicides, of which only five were non-gang related and none of whom were minors. This remarkably low number, moreover, represented a marked decline from 2002, when 42 people were killed in gun violence.

While gang shootouts receive heavy attention from the media, incidents involving guns have been declining. Police in 1995 confiscated 1,396 handguns (including gun replicas illegally modified to enable them to fire bullets). Roughly three-fourths of these were in the hands of syndicate members. In 2006, the overall figure had declined to 204 handguns, of which 44.5 percent were gang-related.

As of April 18, the number of incidents this year in which firearms were discharged had reached 23, up by 10 from the same date in 2006. Casualties included four dead and four wounded.

Interestingly, Japanese appear to be losing interest in owning guns legally as well. In 2005, registered shotguns, rifles and air rifles totaled only 388,856 — down by 36,481 from the previous year. Regulations for licensing, purchase and storage are so cumbersome and expensive that many owners simply decide it's not worth the bother and turn in their guns. In addition, equally tight regulations on the sales of ammunition — what a National Police Agency official once described to me as "bullet control" — are probably as effective in discouraging gun crime as are restrictions on the sales of the guns themselves.

Apart from gang wars and political assassinations, a small number of random shooting sprees have occurred in Japan. One, with 28 fatalities, took place in rural Okayama in May 1938. The last serious incident took place in front of JR Shibuya station in July, 1965 when an 18-year-old youth held up a gun store, took three workers hostage and fired 110 shots that wounded a total of 16 passersby, policemen and news reporters.

Without wishing to seem morbid, it is interesting to compare the public responses to the shootings in the Virginia and Nagasaki. Certainly people in both countries were horrified, and one of the first reactions in both was to engage in recriminations, asking what could have been done to prevent their occurrence The Virginia Tech killings have already received extensive coverage; but some interesting revelations have surfaced about the shooting of Mayor Ito as well.

The Shukan Asahi issue of May 4-11, which went on sale April 22, reported a member of the Suishin-kai gang, whose acting head shot and killed Ito, was arrested by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police on Jan. 31 after being caught taking possession of three handguns. This apparently did not result in alarms being raised in Nagasaki, but perhaps it should have.

Despite the already low rate of gun crime, Japan's National Police Agency can almost certainly be expected to exert additional pressure on organized crime, the main source of illegal gun use. The American public, however, appears resigned to the fact that the country is awash in guns and that efforts to curb their proliferation are almost certainly doomed to failure.

In three of the bloodiest incidents over the past decade, it was young people with guns who turned against their peers. In Jonesboro, Arkansas, in March 1998, two boys aged 11 and 13 opened fire on their school, killing five and wounding nine; 13 months later at Columbine high school in Colorado two students killed 13 schoolmates and wounded 24; and last week, it was a Virginia Tech student who wreaked havoc on the student body.

That young people can obtain lethal weapons so easily is horrifying in itself, but the lack of proposals by the nation's political leaders to deal with this problem — out of apparent fear of antagonizing the powerful gun lobby — is simply inexcusable.

Mark Schreiber, who contributes to the "Tokyo Confidential" column in The Japan Times each Sunday, is the author of two nonfiction books on the history of crime in Japan.


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