Japan keeps tight control over guns ahead of Trump visit
Police in Japan have virtually unlimited rights to search for and seize illegal weapons
A hunters’ association holds a workshop in Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, to teach shotgun-handling to participants earlier this year. File photograph: Kyodo News/Getty Images
US president Donald Trump greets Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe as the latter arrives at the White House on February 10th, 2017 in Washington, DC. File photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images
A week before US president Donald Trump’s scheduled trip to Japan, Masao Aigase got the call: the head of the local hunting club asked whether his firearm was safely stored away. “He wanted to make sure it had not been stolen,” he says.
It might seem unlikely that a shotgun used to shoot the occasional wild duck in rural Tochigi Prefecture could be used to assassinate the US president, but Japan famously keeps very tight control over guns.
Aigase had to take an all-day class and a written exam after he applied for his gun licence. A doctor certified his physical and mental fitness. The police did a background check and asked his neighbours and friends about his character.
When he finally got permission to own a shotgun, he had to provide police with a diagram showing where he keeps it at home. Ammunition has to be stored separately. He can only buy new cartridges by turning up with the old ones.
There is little room for compromise: police have virtually unlimited rights to search for and seize illegal weapons.
Such restrictions appear to work. Japan’s murder rate of 0.03 per 100,000 people is among the lowest in the world; in the US it is more than 5. Japan has the second-lowest number of gun deaths in the OECD (behind Iceland). A single gun slaying was recorded for the whole of 2015.
The laws make it impossible for someone like Stephen Paddock, who shot and killed 58 people in Las Vegas last month, to amass an arsenal of 47 guns. Like anywhere else, Japan has unhappy and unstable people, but if they want to murder someone they must use a knife.
Americans have been coming to Japan for years to study its tight gun laws – though they have little luck applying them back home. The United States has roughly one gun for every person in the country; Japan has 0.6 per 100 people (in Ireland it is 4.3). Opponents of tougher laws say they wouldn’t work everywhere: Japanese people more readily submit to authority.
Ironically, Americans can claim some credit for this state of affairs in Japan. The US-led occupation ordered the Japanese government in the 1940s to collect guns and swords from the public. The order later morphed into the Firearm and Sword Control law of 1958, one of the world’s strictest.
New postwar low
Japan’s police carry revolvers, but seldom need them. Crime rates have been falling for 13 years; in the first six months of 2017 they plunged by 7.7 per cent to set a new postwar low. The police are trained to de-escalate potentially violent confrontations: noisy drunks are wrapped in a plastic sheet and escorted to the nearest police box to calm down.
Partly because it requires patience and persistence, owning a gun is not popular. The number of licensed hunters such as Aigase has more than halved since the 1970s. There are roughly 210,000 legal firearms in a country of 127 million people, according to the National Police Agency – a record low.
All of which makes it unlikely that a gun-waving fanatic will leap in front of the Trump motorcade this weekend and take a shot at the president. And a good thing that is too, says Aigase.
He says he has no problem with the intense police interest in his hobby. “The rules in America seem loose to us in Japan,” he says. “Here we believe guns are dangerous.”