Anatomy of the myth of Japan, the safest country in the world; how has Japan maintained low crime rate?

Koichi Hamai

School of Law, Ryukoku University

If we take an international view of things, Japan enjoyed its post-war reputation as one of the most crime-free countries. The number of homicides reported in Japan has constantly decreased since 1955, and the five years from 2009 to 2013 constituted a period of reduction to an all-time low of 939 in 2013, while the clearance rate in 2013 remained stable and very high, at 100%. According to the Global Study on Homicide 2013 (UN Office on Drugs and Crime), the Japanese homicide rate in 2011 was around 0.3 per 100,000 population – which was lower than in nearly any other advanced democracy. In addition, it is also important to bear in mind that the one year prevalence rate (0.6) of ‘assaults & threats’ in Japan is lowest among all of the countries participating in ICVS 2003-2004.

On the contrary, the Japanese public has become more fearful about their public safety and lost their faith in the criminal justice system’s effectiveness since the mid-1990s because of the media coverage of crimes. Because of the moral panic, Japan has begun not only to take a more punitive sentencing approach, but has also widened and thinned its criminal justice net since 1995, when the Tokyo sarin gas attack happened.

Braithwaite (1989) once claimed that Japan’s success in maintaining a low crime rate could be explained by the commitment of the Japanese criminal justice system, and Japanese society in general, to notions of reintegration and reparation. It seems to be true if we pay attention to the statistics on the relationship between the amount of reparation and punishment. The more you compensate, the more you have chance to get a suspended sentence.

But, had the Japanese society been really still re-integrative and the criminal justice lenient? In the last two decades, since the punitive turn of the criminal justice policy, many elderly have sent to prisons for repeated but very minor shopliftings. The more they re-offended, the longer they have to serve in prison regardless of the damages caused by their offenses.
Indeed, despite the absolute drop in overall crime in Japan, the punitive policy (punishment) is regressive, which means the burden is relatively higher for disadvantaged people such as low-income earners, socially isolated people as well as mentally handicapped people. Those who have been caught by the criminal justice net, are essentially the disadvantaged (In 2012, 21% of the inmates were found to have an IQ below 70.), especially elderly petty offenders. In 2013 more than 17% of new inmates are now above 60 years of age and have no pension to fall back on. In practice, prisons in Japan are being used to make up for the lack of social welfare provision and have become the ‘last safety net’. In this August, the government announced to assign care workers in prisons.

While the number of crimes has been decreasing and Japan almost achieved the safest society in human history, the prisons has detained full of elderly and handicapped people for minor offenses. According to the recent study by the Ministry of Justice, they found that 14% of inmates over 60 are suffering from dementia such as Alzheimer. Then, in the last two decades, more than a thousand of them have died in prisons.

In 2011, March 11, huge earthquake attacked the northern part of Japan, tens of thousands of people died due to the tsunami, and the reactor of the Fukushima nuclear power plant was melted down. However, there was almost no riot or pillage in the area. No police officer abandoned their duty. What kind of mechanism in the society can this be possible?
Based on the above, I would like to explore the social mechanism of the low crime rate in Japan.

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