Have you ever walked past a doorway in Japan after the bars close and see a fully suited-up businessman sleeping with his briefcase by his side? I can say with full confidence that in the UK, he would wake up without his bag, wallet, phone, and possibly his shoes. But for some reason, in Japan he can finish up his power nap with his Rolex still on his wrist!
That’s because Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, especially when it comes to petty criminal activity like theft. The reason for this is as cultural as it is legislative, and speaks volumes of the Japanese character. However, all is not as it seems when it comes to crime in Japan — there’s a darker side to the way that the accused and convicted are treated here, which offers some hints as to why Japanese people are so careful to stay on the right side of the tracks.
Let’s start by looking at which crimes are rare here, and which are relatively more common. After that, we’ll investigate the cultural forces and trends which have made Japan one of the safest places to live and visit on earth.
Which Crimes are Most and Least Common?
Generally, you won’t find much theft going on in Japan. It’s safe to leave your laptop out in a busy city-center cafe when you go to the toilet, and those who miss their last train (or have one too many highballs at the izakaya) often sit themselves down for a nap on the street with their bags placed next to them unguarded. That’s how rare theft is here — it’s simply not expected at all. That being said, these things do still occasionally happen, so you should still take steps to prevent them when visiting Japan.
Assault and other such violent street crimes are also quite rare, which makes sense once you’ve experienced the Japanese aversion to confrontation. Premeditated violent crime such as muggings and murders are rarely seen, but if you spend more than a few months here you are likely to see at least one minor bar scuffle — such is the nature of alcohol everywhere.
Drug use is likewise uncommon, due in part to extremely harsh penalties for those caught using or dealing drugs. Even marajuana, a substance which is undergoing a rapid image change in the West, is still seen as a major taboo here (often more so than its class-A cousins). Possessing even a small amount for personal use can land you up to 5 years in prison, and most of the US citizens currently jailed in Japan are serving sentences for offenses such as this.
More Common Crimes
Perhaps the greatest shame of Japan as far as crime and punishment is concerned is the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault. A survey conducted by the organization WeToo found that just short of 48% of women had been victims of sexual harassment in the form of ‘unwanted touching’. Many of these incidents and others like them — over 20% — happen on packed trains where offenders use the crowds as cover. There’s even a specific word for such incidents — ‘chikan’ — which some women and girls will nowadays shout out to shame the offender and have them detained by fellow passengers.
Unfortunately this isn’t always the case, as Japan’s patriarchal culture has historically been severely stacked against women on these matters. Academic Kazumi Ogasawara estimates that the overall reporting rate for sexual crimes (for both male and female victims) is as little as 13.3%. This includes cases in the home, where sexual and violent crimes are worryingly common.
Despite the fact that overall crime rates reached a post-war low in 2018, domestic violence remained resistant to change; in 2015, the Japanese government reported that a quarter of Japanese women had suffered abuse — physical, mental, or emotional — at the hands of their husbands. It’s undeniable that Japanese society still retains some stubborn stains from the patriarchal past, such as the total dominance of the husband in the household. The number of arrests for these offenses has skyrocketed over the past 30 years, but the optimists among us can put that down to greater reporting, belief of victims, and condemnation of the crime.
On a somewhat lighter note, Japan is filled with shoplifting grannies! Okay, that might something of an exaggeration, but it’s true that elderly females were responsible for over 90% of shoplifting offenses in the Heisei Era! In general, the elderly account for about a fifth of total arrests across the board, and the prisons are filling up accordingly. The Japanese government has recently even had to provide a budget for care workers in around half of their prisons, some of which are essentially becoming slightly more edgy retirement homes. Hopefully, they confiscate the knitting needles…
The final area of the Japanese criminal world which is thriving is organized crime, mostly perpetrated by the famous yakuza gangs. Although their numbers are in decline, these high-level criminals still have a firm hold on the drug and sex trade in Japan. What’s more, they control all of this with much higher visibility than in countries like the US or Mexico, with publicly registered offices and legitimate side businesses. As a rough comparison, imagine the top-level bosses holding the same level of impunity and legitimate power as Pablo Escobar in his heyday (just without the billions upon billions of dollars).
Why is Crime so Low Overall?
It might seem strange to cite the yakuza as a reason for Japan’s low crime rate right after introducing them as the country’s kingpins of vice, but it’s a paradox at the very heart of Japan’s criminal justice culture. These gangs control territories within cities, and within the bounds of their territories, they tend to clamp down on petty crimes such as muggings, robberies, and assaults — the exact sort of crimes that make a country feel unsafe. If the kendo stick of a police officer isn’t enough of a deterrent for a would-be robber, the knife of a yakuza member certainly should be.
They have also been very careful to cultivate a positive image with the public, canny to the fact that the ire of the masses is what can drive increased political opposition. This means that the yakuza take pains to address civilians with respect, and to keep them out of their dealings. The vast majority of yakuza violence is gang-on-gang, and all but one notorious clan (the Kudokai clan of Kyushu) refrain from attacks on civilians. Through this strange relationship with their communities, the yakuza have historically won brownie points among the people.
That being said, this does not mean that every Japanese person loves the yakuza (far from it!). However, some on the far right of Japanese politics will openly argue for the yakuza as a force for good — or, at least, a necessary evil. One piece of evidence for this idea is the yakuza response to natural disasters, such as the 2011 earthquake, when the gangs were some of the first to offer financial, food, and boots-on-the-ground aid to the affected regions.
It’s by maintaining this kind of folk-hero image that the gangs are allowed to operate in relative comfort. There are police operations and task forces dedicated to bringing them down, but despite this yakuza bosses enjoy a level of public visibility, freedom from prosecution, and pop-culture status which criminal kingpins around the world must envy. As a result of all this, much of the actual crime in Japan plows along under the radar, while visible crime stats are lowered by their influence.
Another reason for Japan’s relatively low crime rate is that the culture just doesn’t allow for the sort of outward expressions of anger and passion which can often precipitate crime. To lose one’s head in an argument is seen as disgraceful, so to go as far as punching the other person is completely unthinkable. Uncontrolled behavior is frowned upon in general, so it’s reasonable to surmise that many spur-of-the-moment crimes might have been avoided as a result.
When it comes to less spontaneous crimes such as burglary or tax fraud, then another kind of societal pressure comes into play: the burden of collectivist responsibility. Japan, like many other Asian nations, has a strong, traditional sense of family. The actions of one member can disgrace the family as a whole — especially the parents — so there’s a strong social imperative to behave. On the wider scale, the country also shares Asia’s general affinity for collectivism, rather than the individualism of the West. The result is a much greater sense of civic duty.
The flip side of this is the huge stigma placed on those who do end up going to prison. Traditional Japanese society was strictly stratified into castes, the lowest of which were the burakumin — analogous to India’s ‘untouchables’. Although the system was dissolved in the latter half of the 19th century, its prejudices remain today. The lowest class is typically associated with crime, as much of the yakuza came from their ranks since they were prohibited from entering legitimate careers. For many people whose families historically belonged to the higher castes, to become a criminal and go to jail would be seen as a fall from grace, to the level of the ‘untouchables’.
Very little need be said about this one: in a country where vast swathes of the population have enjoyed good wages and middle-class status since the 50s, the economic drives behind petty crime are weaker than in other countries with greater inequality and poverty.
Another reason for the low crime rate in Japan is the ratio of police to criminals, which has been stacking up in the law’s favor more and moreover the past decades. Even as crime rates have dropped, the government has continued to hire and train more and more police — over 15,000 new positions in the past decade alone. You’ll see a koban (police box) in pretty much every area of every major city, and the presence of the law is quite apparent in most places.
Many expats here will have a story about being stopped by police for some minor infringement — even something as small as the height of their bicycle seat! It seems that, with so many police and so little crime, many of the officers are forced to kill time enforcing the most minor of ordinances. Although it might seem silly, bored police are surely a great indicator species for the health of a nation.
Police also take on a very different character in Japan than in America. While public approval for the police in America has tanked over recent years, the culture here generally holds great respect for the police as upholders of civic order. Generally, countries like Japan, Korea, and China value civic duty over the rights of the individual, so people will tend to defer to authority rather than fight against it.
This might change if Japan were to experience the same kinds of highly visible controversies over fatal police misconduct as in the States. However, law enforcement here tends to employ only non-lethal tactics (using martial arts such as judo), meaning unnecessary police shootings are unheard of.
Guns in Japan
While the debate around the relationship between gun ownership and gun violence in America rages on, those with eyes to read a graph will understand that fewer guns basically always equals fewer shootings. The inverse could potentially be argued for a country already flooded with guns, but Japan is no such place.
As stated a moment ago, not even the police carry guns. Due to strict regulations allowing only the possession of shotguns and air rifles, there are only 0.6 guns per 100 civilians — most of those being for use in sports or on farms. Compare that to an estimated 88.8 guns per 100 Americans and you’ll understand why Japan doesn’t have quite the same problem with robberies and shootings.
Granted, there is the odd shooting in the world of the yakuza every now and then — such as the assassination in a Shinjuku karaoke bar in January 2019 — but even they tend to avoid the noise and police attention caused by firearm crime. The ‘bad guy with a gun’ argument for gun ownership is a moot point when not even the bad guys have them in the first place.
The Darker Side to Japanese Justice
If all of this talk of civic duty and traditional values isn’t flying with you — and granted, the effects of these factors can never be truly gauged — then there’s one final explanation for the low crime rate in Japan which is probably the most clear-cut of all: it really sucks to go to jail here. In fact, it’s terrible to even enter into the criminal justice system at all, whether you’ve been formally charged with a crime or not.
That’s because the foundational value in the Japanese criminal justice system is the exact inverse of its US counterpart: people in Japan are guilty until proven innocent! Let that sink in: if convicted of a crime in Japan, you’re generally considered to be guilty from the moment of your arrest, and the burden of proof is upon you to demonstrate otherwise. This presumption of guilt runs counter to the values of most other developed nations, and Japan has come under increasing fire in recent years for its use of controversial justice tactics associated with this approach.
One is the lengthy detention period which the police here can enact without levying any official charges against an individual. If arrested for a crime, the police can hold you for up to 23 days without charge, for the purposes of interrogation. And what an interrogation it is! Some Westerners who lived through this ordeal and came out free on the other side have reported being aggressively questioned for up to 6 hours per day, with the only goal seemingly being for the detectives to force a confession.
It’s due to these shadily elicited confessions that Japan has an unreasonably high conviction rate of 99.9%. On paper that might sound like the work of an extremely efficient police and judiciary, but in practice it’s more comparable to an Orwellian police state. Daily life inside Japanese prison is also quite authoritarian in character, as prisoners have to stick to an incredibly regimented schedule, following strict rules which govern everything from where to look during meal times to the position they sleep in at night!
You’re Free to Go
If you’re a believer in preventative justice, then you’ll surely agree that the horror of entering the Japanese justice system in the first place is surely enough of a personal deterrent for any would-be criminal. When combined with extreme social pressure, it paints a picture of a country in which the punishments for criminal behavior — both social and penal — could be completely devastating to an individual.
Cynics may be satisfied with such a straightforward explanation, whereas optimists will prefer to accept the idea that the low crime rate speaks to some really positive elements of the Japanese character. The reality is likely a combination of both perspectives
Whatever the reason, the benefit is that the vast majority of people here live peaceful, lawful lives, and the country is one of the safest places on earth to travel. However, as far as treatment for those falling foul of the law goes, there’s much to be done. The same is true for victims of domestic violence and sexual harassment — two of the most prevalent and shameful crimes here.
At any rate, when compared to most other countries, Japan is on another level of safety entirely. If the country can address the injustices and imbalances which still exist within its crime and punishment culture, then it really could become the world leader which it appears to be on paper.