Is Japan's Prohibition Successful?

In Japan, violent crime and homicide are virtually unknown (except for crimes perpetrated by the yakuza gangsters, and the murder of children by suicidal parents). Japan prohibits handguns and rifles. Shotguns may be obtained only after a rigorous licensing process that even includes a short psychiatric examination. The almost complete prohibition on guns in Japan has been strictly enforced ever since 1588, when the military dictator Hidéyoshi announced the "Sword Hunt," and confiscated all firearms and swords from the peasantry. Hidéyoshi's decree perceptively observed that "The possession of unnecessary implements makes difficult the collection of taxes and tends to foment uprising."

So at first glance, the Japanese experience would seem to support the theory that turning the possession of instruments of deadly force into a government monopoly will make people safer from each other (if not safer from the government).

Part of Japan's low crime rate is explained by the efficiency of its criminal justice system, fewer protections of the right to privacy, and fewer rights for criminal suspects than exist in the United States. Japanese police routinely search citizens at will and twice a year pay "home visits" to citizens' residences. Suspect confession rate is 95% and trial conviction rate is over 99.9% . The Tokyo Bar Association has said that the Japanese police routinely "...engage in torture or illegal treatment. Even in cases where suspects claimed to have been tortured and their bodies bore the physical traces to back their claims, courts have still accepted their confessions." Neither the powers and secrecy of the police nor the docility of defense counsel would be acceptable to most Americans. In addition, the Japanese police understate the amount of crime, particularly covering up the problem of organised crime, in order to appear more efficient and worthy of the respect the citizens have for the police.

What Japan and Switzerland have in common (and what is conspicuously absent in most of the metropolitan United States) is a very strong family structure, tightly-knit communities, stable residential patterns, and good relationships across generational lines. The crucial variable is not the presence of firearms, but the degree to which young people are successfully socialised into non-criminal, responsible behaviour patterns.

Written Testimony of David B. Kopel
Select Committee Investigating the Use of Automatic and Semiautomatic Firearms, September 8, 1994, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

[According to the National Police Agency, suicides in Japan in 1996 totaled about 23,000, more than double the number of traffic fatalities. The highest incidence was among men between the ages of 40 and 59, who accounted for about 7,000 of the deaths.

The NPA reports that 3,025 people committed suicide as result of work or economic pressures, 8% more than the previous year. "Stress-related illnesses and suicides are rising because of working conditions," says psychiatrist Toru Sekiya, author of more than a dozen books on the subject. "People who thought they had permanent jobs are finding it difficult to cope with unemployment or change." -- TIME MAGAZINE, FEBRUARY 16, 1998 VOL. 151 NO. 6 Article By Irene M. Kunii /Tokyo]

Japan has a total prohibition on all handguns, yet a Japanese Government document produced in December, 1994, states:

There has been observed a great increase in the number of felonies associated with handguns....more and more common citizens (are) becoming victims of crimes using handguns....The current situation of crimes associated with handguns is so worrisome that if unchecked, it can....pose a serious threat to...Japan.(8)

Such a confession by the Japanese Government clearly demonstrates that its total prohibition of firearms is not a successful method of crime prevention. Yet in September of 1995, in response to rising numbers of illegal handguns being smuggled into Japan for criminal use, the Japanese Government issued a statement, saying: Another serious problem facing the international community is the proliferation of small arms. It is Japan's intention to submit to this session of the General Assembly a draft resolution on the establishment, under the Secretary-General, of a panel of experts to address this issue.(9)

Japan reported at the Liaison Conference of Ministries and Agencies To Control Handguns, held in late 1994, that "Several measures to promote the confiscation of handguns were decided at that conference".(10)

It is clearly Japan's intention to be a forerunner in the establishment of broadbased international regulations to control firearms because of that country's domestic concerns regarding the increasing use of illegal handguns, especially in gang-related criminal activity.

At a UN conference in Cairo in April-May, 1995, Japan tabled a draft resolution which included a call to adopt a "Declaration on the Control of Firearms".(11) The proposed Declaration included the "urgent need to establish a common strategy for effective control of firearms at the global level",(12) and with regard to gaining popular public support said that "States should therefore give due attention to promoting public awareness campaigns on the control of firearms".(13)

The Japanese proposal was significantly reworked and extended by member countries, including Australia. Accepted, it became the Resolution entitled "Firearms Regulations for the Purposes of Crime Prevention and Public Safety".(14)

It stated in the preamble that it is concerned that the high incidence of crimes, accidents and suicides involving the use of firearms is closely related to the abundance of firearms in society without appropriate regulation of their possession and storage or training in their use and, inter alia, to the fact that the persons who are most likely to use them for criminal activities have easy access to them.(15)

The disturbing trend of increasing violence in our society is now being unjustly attributed to the number and type of guns owned by ordinary people.


8) Government of Japan, "Joint Action Program for the Stepped-Up Enforcement on Handguns", December 27, 1994.

9) BASIC, 1996, p15.

10) United Nations Economic and Social Council. Commission On Crime Prevention And Criminal Justice, Fifth Session, "Measures To Regulate Firearms", Vienna, May, 1996, p14.

11) Ninth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and The Treatment of Offenders, "Crime Prevention Strategies, In Particular as Related to Crimes in Urban Areas and Juvenile and
Violent Criminality, Including the Question of Victims: Assessment and New Perspectives", Cairo, 29 April-8 May, 1995, A/CONF.169/L.8, p2.

12) Ibid, Annex Declaration on the Control of Firearms (a) p4.

13) Ibid, (c).

14) Ibid, 4 May, 1995, A/CONF.169/L.8 Rev.1*

15) Ibid, p2.

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