A few weeks ago, I was out late and had missed my last train home, opting to take a taxi. The next morning the news had reported that I had just missed a late-night stabbing at the same station by about half an hour.
Violence in Japan
Police arrived to a scene of six people stabbed outside the station lobby; they tackled the man and forced the kitchen knife out of his hand. The stabber, according to police, had said he “wanted to stab people.” No one was killed.
It seems almost universal that somewhere, someone “wants to stab people.” The difference in Japan and in America is that Americans shoot. A Japanese man opening fire on a crowd of late-night revelers would not have been subdued by policemen so easily; he’d, of course, have been fired on himself.
The debate in America seems to be, fundamentally, an argument about how many shots can be fired from a gun before another gun shoots at the person holding it. That is, can “a good guy with a gun” shoot “a bad guy with a gun” before the “bad gun” does more harm than if nobody had any guns at all?
One answer to that is a morbid comparison of numbers. Twenty seven people were killed in Newtown, Connecticut. Twelve people were killed in Aurora, Colorado last July. The number of people killed by guns in Japan in 2012 was eleven.
Getting a Shotgun in Japan
Japanese gun control laws, as described by the “Sword and Firearm Control Law,” are pretty straightforward: “No one shall possess a firearm or firearms or a sword or swords.” While the American Constitution’s second amendment is controversially clunky in its intention and phrasing, you can’t beat the Japanese model. “Can I have a gun?” “No.” “Can I have… two guns?” “No.” “How about a sword?”
You can, however, own a shotgun. Shotguns are allowed strictly for the purpose of hunting. Literally speaking, to even touch a shotgun in Japan, here’s what you have to do:
1. Take a day-long class on shotgun safety and pass the written exam. Passing the written exam, you’ll shoot the gun under observation. Assuming there are no hijinks, you will be given approval to request a shooting license. The test is held once per month and you’ll probably need to use a vacation day to attend.
2. Take a psychological evaluation at a medical facility. Answer a few questions and don’t be an undiagnosed schizophrenic. The burden of proving your sanity is on you: The doctors are trying to prove you’re crazy. Prove him wrong and you win a chance to take a drug test. Arm wrestling is likely optional. If you pass, a disappointed doctor hands you a certificate, which you can take to the police to start the application process.
3. Apply for the license. The police conduct a criminal background check into you and your family members. If your brother is in the yakuza, you’re not getting a gun.
4. The police investigate your politics. If you’re involved in subversive political causes or disruptive activist groups, the police can disqualify you. This step doesn’t sit well with American Constitutionalists. Whether or not the Japanese government would consider, say, the Tea Party or Occupy movements as “extreme” is purely conjecture, but I’m going to say yes, mostly because Japan is not a very edgy country.
From there, you will give the police a map of your home marking where you intend to store the gun and the ammunition (they must be stored separately). You then pay a 15,000 yen fee (about $125 USD). Then, presto! You have a shotgun. For three years. Then you’ll have to re-apply from the beginning. Good incentive for keeping your brother out of the yakuza.
During those three years, you will agree to take the gun to the police for inspection every year, and you will account for each bullet that you fire, preferably by bringing the empty shell casings. If you cannot account for every bullet missing from your inventory, you can lose your license.
When the train station is open, there’s often a cop standing on a small box, waving at people as they come and go. It reminds me a lot of Salvation Army Santas, waving bells for donations. These cops aren’t armed.
Cops can get guns, but can’t take them home. And like everyone else, every bullet must be accounted for. The hassle of obtaining guns for cops – and the low likelihood that the bad guys have guns – lead some police officers to conduct yakuza raids without any weapons.
(From that same article, I note with some interest that a cop who shot himself with a police-issued weapon was charged posthumously with “non-designated use of a gun.”)
Starting from Scratch
The Japanese law starts from a very different premise than the United States Constitution, and these differences are often the source of a lot of confusion, even for Americans. The primary thing to remember about the United States Constitution is that it is not a list of laws or rules on people, but a list of laws restricting the government from taking certain actions against American citizens.
America’s constitution was written to say that certain laws are self-evident and that government can’t get in the way of them, these things being, for example, the vague “liberty,” the guarantee to practice whatever form of crystal-ghosts new-age ritual you believe in, and the right to shout “fire!” in a crowded theater (yes, you’re actually legally allowed to do that in America).
Gun ownership is one such god-given right in America, which is why we spring from the womb holding a Glock 9. It’s divine intervention. Take this God-given right away and who knows what freedoms will be trampled over next.
The Japanese were not so existentially anxious in their Constitution, instead crafting a typically Japanese doctrine intended to craft a stable, sort-of-functional government bureaucracy.
The ’90s Called
Japan, in 1590, pioneered the use of guns in battle by making rapid improvements to Portuguese hunting rifles. It was the America of its era, having more guns than any other nation on Earth, thanks in part to an effort by Oda Nobunaga to end the Japanese civil war by arming every peasant he drafted into his army. After the war, Hashiba Hideyoshi seized all swords and melted them into a gigantic statue of himself. He also banned firearms, declaring that they were starting to “make difficult the collection of taxes and… foment uprisings.”
Soon after that, the weapons were limited to Samurai, who were legally permitted to kill any peasant for any reason. Indeed, peasants with arms might have deprived Samurai of that particular liberty.
The number one goal in 1958, when the Sword and Gun law was passed, was to make sure Samurai didn’t lead an armed insurrection against a more liberal government. The goal of America’s second amendment is to guarantee that Americans have an easy go at armed insurrection against a less liberal one.
The American left – of which I am a part – often seems to find the line between gun laws and tyranny somewhat ludicrously drawn. But there is something that is overlooked when Americans glance at Japan and say, “We could do that.”
For one, it’s true that Japanese people are not killing each other with handguns as often as Americans are. But they are also not pick-pocketing, jaywalking, or improperly recycling. They report money they find in the street to the nearest business or policeman.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government, not content with a stable, orderly society full of Boy Scouts, continues to pass laws that test the limits of a free society: A ban on dancing, for example, or a two-year prison sentence for downloading MP3s.
Japanese culture has a deep respect for authority. Notably, when American generals came into Japan after WW2 with expecting to break apart a fascist ideology that had held the country hostage – which Americans faced in German reconstruction efforts – they soon learned that no fascist infrastructure was necessary. The culture respects authority so much that the only way to reorganize it into a democracy was to maintain that authority – embodied in the Emperor – and have that authority say, “OK, now we’re a free-market democracy.”
Then, take the guns away from everyone as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, some other legal rights of the police include search and seizure on the suspicion of having a weapon; if the weapon is legal or seized illegally, the police can still use it as evidence. This is true of any illegal search that turns up any form of contraband. You can be put into prison for 28 days without trial or access to anyone but your lawyer in observed meetings.
It would be silly to claim that gun laws contributed to the lack of individual rights within Japan’s legal system. But the same people have made the same laws. More to the point, gun laws hardly seem necessary. Guns aren’t so deeply intertwined with the Japanese sense of personal liberty because that liberty isn’t as valued in Japan as it is in the United States.
I’m not against questioning gun laws, and I don’t feel that American culture is “more free” as a result of handgun ownership. Guns wreak havoc on the first and most basic hopes protected by the Constitution, impeding so often on the right to life and the pursuit of happiness.
But it seems a bit silly to look at Japan for a model of how to curb gun laws in America. One would do better to look at the United Kingdom, or Australia, where their worst members of society are just as dedicated to a world of criminality and violence as the worst Americans are. Look to countries that, in the name of personal freedoms, are run over with bar fights, drunken jeering and alleyway stabbings, not the country of people terrified of their phone making a vibrating sound on a crowded train.
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