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Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2003

THE ZEIT GIST

Bidding a farewell to arms in Japan

Even the country's crime waves are safer


When a bullet strikes the car in which one is riding, the sound -- a sharp, metallic "WHAP!" -- is unmistakable. This writer has heard it twice in his life, and I hope the second time will be the last.

Not all of my experiences with firearms have been like that. My dad, an army officer, gave me a Remington .22 caliber rifle for my eighth birthday. He taught me how to load, aim and shoot, and instructed me in gun safety. So I never shot myself. Or anybody else.

Guns pretty much ceased to be a part of my life when I came to Japan. In fact, I don't recall ever having heard a gun being fired in this country -- except maybe the starting pistols used at undokai (school athletic meets) held each Sports Culture Day at the local primary school.

I choose to raise this point because Japan is supposed to be in the midst of a serious crime wave. The police are overwhelmed the media says, the number of offenses has surged above 2 million and the clearance rate has dropped to around 20 percent, which means only one offender in five is likely to be tried.

As discouraging as that may appear, one shudders to think how much worse things would be if criminals could get their hands on guns.

According to the National Police Agency Web site ( www.npa.go.jp/), during all of 2002, 24 people in Japan died as a result of the illegal use of firearms. Certainly there are historical and cultural factors involved as well, but whatever the reason, you must agree this is a remarkably low number. And it would seem quite significant that despite thefts, robberies, and even murders soaring to record levels, homicides by guns have not increased commensurately.

What does this mean for us foreign residents? Statistically, you are far more likely to die from eating a poisonous fugu (blowfish), being struck by lightning or by being trampled by an rampaging female hippopotamus (One actually escaped from a ship in Yokohama port several years ago; its appearance caused several people to immediately swear off drinking, but no casualties resulted).

The most obvious reason for such a low number of gun victims is that since 1945, Japan hasn't had many guns around. According to the Police White Paper for 2000, Japan had a total of 459,764 legally registered shotguns and rifles and air rifles in private hands, down by about 10,000 from the year before.

The red tape to getting a gun permit, needed to buy the gun, is formidable. You can't have a criminal record. You must obtain a certificate from a physician stating that you're of sound mind and body. You have to attend a series of mind-numbing safety lectures and pass a written test. It's expensive.

Once you get your gun, you're obliged to keep it stored out of sight. And the police have the right to call on your home, at any time, to ascertain that you are complying with the regulations.

As for handguns -- don't ask. The number legally held by civilians is officially zero. Even members of the Olympic shooting team can't legally own a pistol. In 1999, authorities confiscated about 1,000 illegal handguns. Most of them were smuggled from abroad, but roughly 10 percent were modified replicas.

It's true that some gangsters manage to get their hands on guns. But at a distance of more than three meters, most yakuza tend to be lousy shots. There's a logical explanation for this: it takes hours of practice on a target range to become adept at a handgun. To do this, you'll need plenty of ammunition. But with no license, you can't walk in a store and replenish your supply.

"It's not just gun control that keeps casualties down," a police inspector once told me. "It's bullet control."

Interestingly, it wasn't hard to purchase a gun in Japan before World War II. The current gun law seems to be a continuation of regulations that were put into effect during the postwar occupation period, designed to keep guns out of public hands.

To learn more about how the law came into being, I went to the National Diet Library to read from the official Diet record. I knew the number of the bill and the date it was passed, but couldn't find it in the record. So I went to the librarian for assistance.

She squinted at the text, flipped the page and said, "Here it is," pointing to the section with her finger.

The entry runs only four or five lines. On that fateful day in March 1958, Japan's legislators spent more time deliberating a price increase for Golden Bat cigarettes than they did debating the rights of citizens to bear arms.

Of course, since cigarettes kill far more people than do guns, even in the U.S., I guess that makes sense.



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