The secret of Japan’s mysteriously low crime rate

Japan is often considered slightly odd compared to other countries. Its economic success, distinct culture and disciplined population has made Japan rather unique, and produced one of the lowest crime rates in the world. The country has 127 million people yet street crime is almost unheard of; the murder rate is only lower in tiny Monaco and Palau, and the use of drugs is minimal compared to other industrialized countries. The Japanese intolerance to illicit drugs  – seen as evidence of bad personal character – were demonstrated with the national outrage the followed when two well-known sumo wrestlers tested positive for marijuana in 2008.

Japan: Many people, no crimes.

A Japanese friend of mine explained that going to prison would be an unimaginable social stigma for most people, leading to a widespread public perception that crimes are mostly committed by foreigners. The belief that almost all Japanese are law-abiding also creates a system that routinely treats suspects as guilty until proven otherwise. In such a hierarchical and deferential society, suspects face enormous pressure to cooperate with the investigators and admitting guilt, leading to a conviction rate in the courts of more than 99%.  The criminal justice system is founded on a strong belief that the criminal must repent for his crime – not simply being punished the law – and Japanese prisons are well-known (or notorious) for their strict discipline and order.

It is a undisputed fact that Japan has achieved a remarkable

safe society compared to other industrialized countries, and they incarcerate far fewer than for instance the UK (with a prisoner rate 3 times higher) or the US (13 times higher). Yet it is also a carefully maintained image that ignores many darker aspect of the Japanese society. Its modern surface often doesn’t extend to social attitudes towards women in this male-dominated culture. Unlike the rare violent crimes, sexual assaults are said to be widespread and severely underreported. The existence of chikan (“perverts”, meaning men groping women in public) is a massive problem and has led to the creation of “women-only” carriages in most major cities. Japanese police are also criticized for failing to take victims of sexual crimes seriously time and again as a result of either chauvinist bias or an inability to investigate such crimes.

What are most disturbing are however arguments that the low crime is partially a result of a police culture that are obsessed with keeping crime statistics low. Former detectives claim that police is unwilling to investigate homicides unless there is a clear suspects and frequently labels unnatural deaths as suicides without performing autopsies. Coincidentally, Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

Sexual crimes are widespread in Japan

The Return of the Golden Triangle

The lawless area in the intersection between Laos, China, Thailand and Burma – more commonly known as the Golden Triangle – has been a major drug producing area since the 1960s. Rough terrain, armed guerrillas and little government control enabled powerful drug kingpins to make billions on large-scale cultivation of the opium poppy – which is processed into heroin – as well as dozens of illegal factories producing methamphetamine and amphetamine. Focused efforts by national governments and international organizations, including giving opium farmers alternative crops to grow, led to a sharp decline in drug production in the 1990s and 2000s. Yet according to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) the region has seen growing drug production for the seventh last years, creating the second biggest exporter of heroin after war-torn Afghanistan. It appears that the Golden Triangle is booming again.

Khun San meets Australian journalist Stephen Rice, 1989

The Golden Triangle has a bloody history. When the nationalist Kuomintang lost the Chinese civil war to Mao’s Communist Party, tens of thousands nationalist troops that refused to surrender escaped across the borders to neighboring Thailand and Burma. They soon turned to drug trafficking to finance their fight against the communist regime, ending their hopeless war only in the 1980s.  The area hosted several powerful armies that profited from the opium trade, but the most notorious drug lord was undoubtedly Khun Sa, leader of the Mong Tai army with several thousand soldiers. Dubbed the “Opium King”, this Burmese warlord of Shan decent was the major exporter of heroin to the US until the 1990s (he was portrayed in the movie American Gangster) and allegedly offered American and Australian governments to buy his entire opium crop to cut out the supply to their illegal markets.

After Khun Sa surrendered to the Burmese authorities in 1996, his subordinate Naw Kang quickly took control of key stretches of the Mekong river that follows the borders between the countries. His gang trafficked drugs worth tens of millions of dollars and taxed boats that travelled through their territory. His reign only ended with his execution in 2013, after 13 Chinese sailors were massacred on the Mekong and he was captured by Special Forces sent by China to his hideouts in Laos.

Shan State, Myanmar.

The majority of the drug production takes however place in Burma’s mountainous Shan State. Due to decades of bloody civil war this state is host to numerous armed guerillas, among them the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA) with an estimated 20 000 man under arms. From their large territories on the Chinese border they are believed to be the largest criminal gang in the region, earning billions of dollars by producing copious amounts of methamphetamine and taxing opium farmers. While the UWSA leadership denies all such claims, few doubt that drug production is a lucrative business for many powerful players, government and guerrilla alike. The American embassy in Yangon concluded 20 years ago that Burma’s “exports of opiates appear to be worth as much as all legal exports.” With the country still among the poorest in the world, it is very likely that the massive opium production is a key reason for the continued fighting in parts of Burma.

The Myth of the Violent America

The United States has long had a reputation for being a violent society. Our imagination of the gun-slinging outlaws in the Wild West was later replaced with the image of crack-addicts and gangs roaming the streets. Countless Hollywood blockbusters have fueled this perception, both in the US and globally, by portraying bank robberies, assassinations, police shoot-outs and brutal gang wars as normal features of the American society. There is no denial that America is far more violent than most, if not all, other western countries. Despite having a population only 10 times larger, the US has 65 times more murders by firearms than Canada and 57 times more prisoners, while only employing 11 times more police officers. The obsession over gun ownership in the US largely comes from the idea that citizens have a real need to protect themselves from violent criminals, as well as being a product of traditional mistrusts towards federal authorities in Washington.

What most of us have however failed to realize is that Americans have been committing fever and fever crimes since the late 1980s.  Violent crimes even fell by more than 5% after the economic recession in 2008, despite all conventional wisdom predicting that criminality will increase when people becomes unemployed. Very few foresaw this development; in fact, two decades ago criminologists and conservative politicians were instead predicting a future where super-predators, “kids that have absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of the future”, would rule the street and force terrorized citizens to retreat to their gated communities. After the killing of 12 students and a teacher at the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, it was often argued that video games were further contributing to this problem by rewarding kids for violent behavior and making them lose touch with reality.

It is nothing new that we are scared of the new generations. Socrates himself claimed that young people «have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders”. A key reason for the misperception in the US is also because of the way media works:  we are generally far more interested in stories that deal with the darker aspects of human nature, so sex and violence sells better than reports on how the society is improving. Studies show that TV-news particular over-report on violent stories, which influence the perception that our neighborhoods are becoming more dangerous year by year.

New York is a key example on how crime in the US has changed. In 1991, the city had 2 245 homicides; last year there were a record-low 333 murders. Tougher policing under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani are often praised as the main reason for this development. Another key issue is likely the stabilization of the crack cocaine market; in the 1980s New York suffered massively as street gangs fought to establish their territories when this new and lucrative drug was introduced. Violent crime and street gangs remain a significant problem today across the US, but it is not nearly as commonplace as most of have been led to believe.