More Stressed, but Still Safer
The stories became legendary among foreigners living in Japan: the handbag left in a taxi, returned the next day; big- city streets so safe that women walk home alone at night; the gangster who commits a crime and then turns himself in to police.
Such tales are less common today, a casualty of rising crime rates and a nation under stress. But if no longer the safe haven it once was, Japan remains one of the industrial world's least violent societies. With a population less than half that of the United States, Japan has consistently logged fewer than one-tenth the number of homicides. Americans are 15 times as likely to be assaulted, and 19 times as likely to be raped.
During Japan's heralded "economic miracle" after World War II, the Japanese performed a second, less noticed achievement: For much of the postwar era, as U.S. crime rates shot up, those in Japan fell, despite unprecedented urban growth. Criminologists offer various explanations, but most cited is Japan's largely homogenous population, with a group-centered culture that keeps people in line. "The idea of collective responsibility is deeply rooted in Japan," says author and educator Michio Matsui. "Once a family member commits a violent crime, even his cousins can be subject to criticism."
Koban. Others credit community-based law enforcement, which features koban, or police boxes, on many street corners. Some experts warn, though, that the rate of underreporting-particularly on crimes such as rape and extortion-may be unusually high, given the Japanese penchant for saving face.
On the lack of violent crime, perhaps the most controversial reason cited is Japan's strict tradition of gun control. Handguns are illegal, and only handfuls of sportsmen and hunters are allowed to own rifles. Japanese, like many foreigners, find America's stubborn attachment to firearms hard to decipher. Gun control advocates point to the fact that over two thirds of America's 16,692 homicides in 2005 involved firearms.
Japan's sense of urban security began to fray in the 1990s, with the Aum Shinrikyo cult's rush-hour, nerve-gas assault on the Tokyo subway. Rising crime rates, growing numbers of juvenile delinquents, an influx of foreign gangsters, and a series of high-profile murders have further eroded the image of a crime-free Japan.
Yet while the Japanese fret about a new era of "American style" crime, most Yanks should be so lucky to live in a place where neighborhoods are still patrolled by unarmed cops on bicycles.
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.