Authorities in Japan have made it very difficult for most of the country’s citizens to own guns. As a result, shooting deaths are rare.
Max Fisher, an associate editor at The Atlantic, says the differences between the gun cultures in the US and Japan are rooted in history. He says after World War II, the American occupation authority in Japan insisted that Japanese police wear firearms.
“Gen. MacArthur was famously dismayed because none of the police carried guns,” Fisher says. “And he had to specifically order them to carry handguns or they just wouldn’t do it.”
Fisher says that attitude is reflected in popular culture today.
“In a Japanese action movie, if a handgun comes out, that’s considered this kind of very serious grave thing,” Fisher notes. “Whereas in an American action movie, unless there are 40 guns going off at once it’s kind of a boring scene.”
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Aaron Schachter: Now you may think that Israel has pretty strict gun laws, but they’re nothing compared to Japan. Authorities have made it extremely difficult for the average citizen to own a weapon. As a result, gun violence in Japan is almost unheard of. Max Fisher is an associate editor at the Atlantic. He says Japanese attitudes toward gun ownership are the polar opposite to those found in America.
Max Fisher: It is really hard to get your hands on a gun in Japan. Handguns are absolutely banned except on on-duty police, they can’t even carry them when they’re off duty. You can’t buy rifles unless you owned one before 1971 when they passed the first law banning all rifles. You can have a shotgun or an air rifle but it is a very difficult and onerous process to get one, which is why Japan has one of the lowest gun ownership rates in the world. There are 6 guns privately held for every 1000 people. In the United States, there are 890 guns for every 1000 people. Gun violence is also extremely low. In 2008 in the U.S., there were 12,000 firearm related homicides. In all of Japan, there were 11. That’s fewer people than were killed just in the Aurora shooting. There were 587 Americans killed by accidental gun discharges. There were none killed in Japan.
Schachter: What is the difference in regulations between the United States and Japan?
Fisher: In Japan the law actually starts with this 1958 law that reads “no person shall posses a firearm or firearms, or a sword or swords.” So they start from the assumption that you can’t have guns, and from there work in exceptions. In some situations, you can have a shotgun for hunting, but you have to go through this very difficult process to get a hold of it.
Schachter: As you mentioned, though, there are some number of guns in Japan. What do you have to go through to get one?
Fisher: It starts with an all day class and a written test. They are held once a month, on a weekday. Once you pass the written test, you have to take and pass a shooting range class. Then you head over to the hospital for a mental test and a drug test. Japan is really unusual in that you have to affirmatively prove your mental health in order to get a gun. Then you file that with the police. The police will go on to do a pretty rigorous background check. And that’s just to get your hand on the shotgun or air rifle. Once you’ve got it, you have to give the police specific details on where in your home you’re keeping the shotgun and the ammunition. Then after all that, you’ve got to bring the gun in for an annual inspection by the police, and then every three years you have to do the entire thing all over again. You can see why a lot of people in Japan think it’s not worth the trouble.
Schachter: Do you foresee any changes in the laws in Japan?
Fisher: I don’t think so. Japanese gun laws have been slowly tightening since 1958. They’ve even had to pass some laws to make people carry guns more. The American occupation authority, after World War II, General MacArthur was famously dismayed because none of the police carried guns. He had to specifically order them to carry handguns or they just wouldn’t do it.
Schachter: The thing is, though, that we are comparing things in the 2000′s, but as you mentioned, the history of this stuff is very, very different.
Fisher: Part of it goes back to the 19th century when there was this very explicit government effort to disarm the Samurai class, which was this famous elite that were using weapons to entrench their authority. The Maji restoration was trying to take that back. The big way they did that is they said ‘you have to turn over your swords’ which ended up being very violent. A lot of them would not give them up without a fight. And you can kind of see this legacy in the laws. Even 20th century laws will write, alongside firearms, they will also write swords. The firearm law says no firearms or no swords.
Schachter: There was a nice anecdote in your law about the famous Yakuza gangsters using things other than guns. Sort of America before the ’20s.
Fisher: It’s amazing. The Yukaza…I don’t want to downplay the Yakuza because they kill a lot of people. They’re very violent. They occasionally use not just guns, but assault rifles…but culturally they are very sensitive about using guns. You can even see it in the pop culture. The idea of, in a Japanese action movie, if a handgun comes out it’s considered this very serious, grave thing, whereas in an American action movie, unless there’s 40 guns going off at once, it’s kind of a boring scene. You can really see the way they look at guns is so different than how we do, and they’re much more sensitive to the danger they pose.
Schachter: Max Fisher is the associate editor at The Atlantic. We’ll have a link to his article “A land without guns: how Japan has virtually eliminated shooting deaths.” Max, thank you.
Fisher: Thank you.
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