Affairs

Crime

Forecast 2011: The perceived crime threat in Japan— Tokyo

Preface

It was not just the news itself, but the sickening familiarity of it all: a Japanese bus station in the morning rush hour, buses jammed with passengers and a 27-year-old man with a knife.

Knife, Stabbing

2 January 2011

It was not just the news itself, but the sickening familiarity of it all: a Japanese bus station in the morning rush hour, buses jammed with passengers and a 27-year-old man with a knife. His motive remains obscure; his victims, so far as one can tell, were complete strangers to him. But by the time his stabbing rampage came to an end, 13 people had been injured, 11 of them schoolchildren.As Japanese digested the news of the latest indiscriminate knife attack they were asking themselves how this kind of thing could happen – yet again.

For the half century following the war, Japan prided itself on being the most law-abiding country in the industrialised world. In the last decade, every few months seem to bring new reports of motiveless brutality, often by alarmingly young people. The question prompted by the latest incident is not “what is wrong with him?” but “what is wrong with us?”Various explanations are offered for this apparent surge in violence, most of them connected with the social changes which have taken place in post-war Japan. Two generations ago, Japanese children grew up in large extended families; today, families are smaller, and many children grow up alone and isolated. Commentators also point to the influence of Japan’s mania for gadgetry, saying it encourages young people to spend time alone with video games or to communicate via their mobile phones rather than meeting in person. Without friends or social skills, it is argued, many young people have no release except through violence.But another news story a few hours before the bus station massacre reveals the so-called surge in violent crime is actually an illusion.

Far from painting a picture of despondency and a crime-ridden future for Japan, it turns out the opposite is true. According to Japan’s National Police Agency, the number of recorded crimes has fallen to the lowest in 23 years. Between January and November last year, 1,465,223 cases were reported during the period, down 6.9 per cent from the previous year, the eighth consecutive year in which crime has declined. Murders and attempted murders have also declined to record levels, with 988 cases in the first 11 months of last year, a 2.8 per cent decline.Offences like muggings, burglary and drug dealing, which city dwellers in the rest of the world have learned to accept as part of everyday life, are between four and eight times lower than in the West. By every measure, Japan is the safest and least crime-ridden country on earth – and it is becoming safer every year.“Young Japanese probably murder the fewest people of any youth worldwide,” Mariko Hasegawa, a professor of evolutionary biology at Tokyo’s Waseda University, has said. “It is because murders in general have become so unusual that cases involving people who seem to have personality disorders stand out.” Japanese citizens, all the statistics say, have every reason to feel more secure in 2011. The epidemic which Japan faces is not one of crime itself, but the fear of crime, fuelled by the media.

It was not just the news itself, but the sickening familiarity of it all: a Japanese bus station in the morning rush hour, buses jammed with passengers and a 27-year-old man with a knife. His motive remains obscure; his victims, so far as one can tell, were complete strangers to him. But by the time his stabbing rampage came to an end, 13 people had been injured, 11 of them schoolchildren.

As Japanese digested the news of the latest indiscriminate knife attack, they were asking themselves how this kind of thing could happen – yet again. For the half century following the war, Japan prided itself on being the most law-abiding country in the industrialised world. In the last decade, every few months seem to bring new reports of motiveless brutality, often by alarmingly young people. The question prompted by the latest incident is not “what’s wrong with him?” but “what’s is wrong with us?”

Various explanations are offered for this apparent surge in violence, most of them connected with the social changes which have taken place in post-war Japan. Two generations ago, Japanese children grew up in large extended families; today, families are smaller, and many children grow up alone and isolated. Commentators also point to the influence of Japan’s mania for gadgetry, saying it encourages young people to spend time alone with video games or to communicate via their mobile phones rather than meeting in person. Without friends or social skills, it is argued, many young people have no release except through violence.

But another news story a few hours before the bus station massacre reveals the so-called surge in violent crime is actually an illusion. Far from painting a picture of despondency and a crime-ridden future for Japan, it turns out the opposite is true. According to Japan’s National Police Agency, the number of recorded crimes has fallen to the lowest in 23 years.

Between January and November last year, 1,465,223 cases were reported during the period, down 6.9 per cent from the previous year, the eighth consecutive year in which crime has declined. Murders and attempted murders have also declined to record levels, with 988 cases in the first 11 months of last year, a 2.8 per cent decline.

Offences like muggings, burglary and drug dealing, which city dwellers in the rest of the world have learned to accept as part of everyday life, are between four and eight times lower than in the West. By every measure, Japan is the safest and least crime-ridden country on earth – and it is becoming safer every year. “Young Japanese probably murder the fewest people of any youth worldwide,” Mariko Hasegawa, a professor of evolutionary biology at Tokyo’s Waseda University, has said. “It is because murders in general have become so unusual that cases involving people who seem to have personality disorders stand out.” Japanese citizens, all the statistics say, have every reason to feel more secure in 2011. The epidemic which Japan faces is not one of crime itself, but the fear of crime fuelled by the media.

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