Japan Gun Laws Spur Astonishing Okinawa Crime

Japan Gun Laws Spur Astonishing Okinawa Crime

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Girl with toy gun
Picture: sasaki106 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
A recent robbery in Okinawa highlights something of a trend in generally gun-less Japan: crimes committed with imitation weaponry.

On a Monday morning, an incident occurred near the US Kadena Air Base in central Okinawa City that highlights something of a trend – the result of Japan gun laws, considered some of the strictest in the world.

A man, brandishing what appeared to be a gun, broke into the Lucky Exchange Center. The man thrust the apparent weapon at a shop employee, ordering she hand over cash. His reported demands – which were surprisingly polite – included “5 million yen, please.”

Yet before he could receive any of his desired spoils, the Lucky Exchange employee reached for a phone to call the 110, and the man fled the scene. Shortly thereafter, the Okinawa Police were dispatched on emergency deployment, fanning out in search of the attempted robber.

By 3PM on the same day, a suspect – a Japanese man in his 50s – was in custody. Aided by security camera footage from the surrounding area, the police ascertained the make of the man’s getaway car. This led them to the suspect, living in the village of Kitanakagusuku, around half an hour away from the scene of the crime. The police arrested the suspect on suspicion of failed robbery and breaking-and-entering. Police told reporters that “there was no doubt” that this was the failed robber in question.

As for the man’s weapon? In the end, it turned out to be nothing but a model gun. While this might raise eyebrows in countries like the USA, the situation in Japan is a bit different; the idea that someone would try to rob a store with a plastic toy is, if anything, almost par for the course. After all – how would they get a real gun in the first place?

Japan Gun Laws Create a Land Without Guns

In Japan in 2015, there were but a total of 23 deaths by gun – and only three of these were homicides. Share on X

At this point, it’s well known that Japan has some of the world’s strictest gun laws. Journalists, academics, and gun control activists often tout Japanese gun crime rates as proof of the benefits of control; in 2015, there were but a total of 23 deaths by gun – and only three of these were homicides. Japan has one of the lowest gun ownership rates in the world, with only 0.3 people out of 100 owning a firearm.

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Compare these stats to the famously gun-happy USA. The US has more privately owned guns than people, with about 120.5 guns per 100 residents. In 2017, guns killed 39,773 people in the USA, 14,542 of which were homicides. Japan has close to half the population of the US – meaning the rate of murder by firearm in Japan is incomparably minuscule when placed against US number (or, indeed, most places in the world).

The reason for all this is usually considered to lie in Japan’s famously strict gun laws. Gun rights activist David B. Kopel has said that “…gun control in Japan is the most stringent in the democratic world.” Ownership of handguns is essentially impossible; shotguns for hunting require passing safety, drug, and mental health tests. All ammo purchases are registered, and there are caps on how much one can buy. Guns and ammo must be stored in separate lockers. Even air rifles require a permit.

Additionally, the punishments for illegally owning a gun are very high. Illegal possession of a single firearm can result in 10 years jail time; possession of two can add an extra five years, as can owning ammo for your illegal gun. Discharging a gun in a public space can lead to a life sentence. These laws are so tough that even professional criminals, usually the only people with access to illegal firearms, avoid using them.

Battle Without Honor or Firearms

Gun violence and crime used to be the purview of the yakuza, Japan’s infamous organized crime syndicates. Even as recently as 2007, an irate member of the Yamaguchi-gumi (one of the largest criminal organizations in the world) shot the mayor of Nagasaki to death over unpaid damages to the yakuza’s car. Yet even before this brazen act resulted in stricter gun control enforcement, possessing a firearm was dangerous for the yakuza. In the 1980s, mobsters would hire craftsmen to convert toy guns into usable, lethal weapons; so much did they wish to avoid possession charges.

The potential ramifications for holding a handgun, much less using one, have forced yakuza to essentially abandon the weapon. Guns are usually only implemented for the purposes of assassination; even then, the killer will already have prepared for a life in prison and distanced themselves from their organization. Gun charges can literally shut a syndicate down.

An Osaka police officer, speaking to journalist Jake Adelstein, reportedly explained the situation as such:

Unless you’re an old gangster and wanting to stay in jail until you die because you got nowhere else to go, you don’t use a gun. The crime isn’t worth the time in jail.

So, with even hardened professional criminals avoiding real guns, it’s easy to imagine that petty criminals have even less access.

Japan Gun Laws Force a Resort to Toys

Japan gun laws: woman holding gun
Picture: Graphs / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

The result of all this is that, rather than threaten robbery with real guns, criminals instead turn to empty threats. The same Asia Times article by Adelstein included two such examples within the yakuza. In one, a Matsuba-kai mobster threatened a deliveryman with a plastic gun in order to get out of paying cash-on-delivery for a $7000-plus watch. (The deliveryman simply took the plastic gun from the yakuza and called the police.) Another incident features a Kobe-Yamaguchi-gumi Issei-kai boss threatening a rival yakuza with execution by plastic gun to the head.

The potential ramifications for holding a handgun, much less using one, have forced yakuza to essentially abandon the weapon. Share on X

Yakuza are far from the only would-be criminals turning to fake guns, however. The suspect in Okinawa from Monday is no rarity, either. In August of 2019, a 51-year-old unemployed man (interestingly, the exact same descriptor as the suspect in Okinawa) broke into the house of a man who owed an acquaintance money. He brandished a plastic model gun – and, much more threateningly, a real knife. Only a month earlier, Tokyo police arrested a man in his 40s who had robbed three convenience stores using a toy Walther P38. (When arrested, the suspect supposedly said that he only had the gun because he was a fan of the anime Lupin the Third.)

In December 2017, a Ground Self-Defense Force member robbed a bank truck using a plastic gun. He fled the scene on a bicycle, only to be tackled to the ground by a witness to his crime. And our failed robber from Monday isn’t the only person in Okinawa to attempt to get some cash by way of plastic firearm facsimile; in February 2017, the son of an American marine stationed on the island robbed a deli in Uruma City using a toy gun.

Better to Fake It?

The rash of robberies using plastic weaponry can, in a sense, be a source of mirth; however, it at least marks the success of Japan’s gun laws. While many aspects of Japanese criminal justice and draconian drug laws can be easily criticized, local gun law is another matter. That so few people die by gun in Japan, and so few criminals even have access to one, is a sign of success; one many countries envy. Japan may not be the radically safe utopia some tend to describe it as; but, at least, any given would-be robber is likely packing little more than empty plastic.

Sources

(2020年9月8日 06:19).「500万円お金く」“銃”を持った男が両替店に車で逃走、逮捕. Okinawa Times.

David B Kopel, ‘Japanese Gun Control’ (1993) 2 Asia Pac L Rev 26.

Adelstein, Jake. (2017). Japan’s gun control laws so strict the Yakuza turn to toy pistols. Asian Times.

Japan/America, Gun Facts, Figures and the Law. Gunpolicy.org.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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