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Japan: A “Safety” Country

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A little over a year ago, an attractive young British woman named Lindsay Hawker was murdered in Tokyo. Her body was found, half-covered with sand in an attempt to hide it, in the tub of an apartment owned by a young Japanese man. This young man had been pursuing Ms. Hawker as an English instructor and had persuaded her to come to his home, presumably for an English lesson.

As a great many police searched her alleged murderer’s apartment, they allowed the suspect to slip away. They didn’t even attempt to restrain him, and he has not yet been found. Their casual approach and sloppy police work has caused Ms. Hawker’s family to despair of ever seeing justice done for her murder.

Lindsay Hawker is one of the more noted victims of the generally held conception that Japan is a safe place to live. Any time you speak to a Japanese person and ask about why they prefer to live in Japan rather than abroad, you will invariably receive the (grammatically incorrect) answer, “Japan is a safety country.” This mantra is repeated by those who were born here, as well as by those who live here, and is supported by low crime statistics.

While it is true that Japan is a safer place than other countries, particularly when comparing urban areas in Western countries to those of Japan, it is by no means “safe.” Buying into the idea that Japan is an almost crime-free society where people can freely roam city streets late into the night, as the Japanese people are peaceful, non-violent, and trustworthy, is a recipe for personal tragedy.

Lindsay Hawker not only went home with a young Japanese man she didn’t know very well, she also let him into her home at one point. If she hadn’t believed the myth that Japanese people are somehow less likely to commit crimes and exercised the same level of caution in Tokyo as she would have exercised with a man in similar circumstances back home in her native England, she would probably be alive today.

She was convinced, as are other victims of various crimes in Japan, that she had chosen to come to a safe place with gentle people who were unlikely to do her any harm. This is part of the diet PR Western folks are regularly fed back home and they welcome it.

The lie about Japan being safe is the product of a variety of factors. One of them is the need of the Japanese to sell their country as idyllic and superior in many ways to other countries and the companion compulsion among Western folks being sold such stories to buy wholesale into this notion.

When reading about how lost wallets are returned and bikes are left unlocked yet are not stolen, Western people don’t question the veracity of these assertions, but simply nod their heads in agreement and wistfully consider how they’d like to live in such a society, too.

They don’t know bikes that appear unlocked and unchained actually have small, hard-to-see barrier locks on their front or back wheels. They don’t know bikes are regularly stolen and police frequently stop cyclists to see if their serial numbers correspond to stolen bikes’ numbers. Such searches wouldn’t be necessary if there weren’t a goodly number of stolen bicycles to track.

Western folks also don’t know that even Japanese people will scoff at the idea that every lost wallet is returned with their contents intact. One of my students laughed heartily at an article on Japanese honesty that claimed lost items were diligently returned. He’d lost three wallets, and only one came back – and that one was missing its cash.

While it is true you may have a far better chance of getting back a lost item in Japan than any other country, it’s by no means a certainty, nor is it an indication of scrupulous honesty. It’s a reflection of a society that teaches a pattern of response to their citizens from a young age and encourages paranoia about found money.

Every person I’ve spoken to about this told me he or she would not keep the money out of fear that it was ill gotten gains. They fear the police would see them picking it up and arrest them for theft if they kept it. Not one of them said, “It’s wrong.”

Additionally, the low crime statistics, which seem to support the notion that Japan has little crime, are taken at face value. If you peek under the covers of these statistics, you will find they are distorted. For one thing, the Japanese police only count the crimes they consider filing and acting on.

One of my husband’s coworkers was raped several months ago. The police had little interest whatsoever in investigating her case or bringing the perpetrators to justice. Crimes against women (domestic violence, sexual assault, battery, or intimidation in particular) are often brushed off and never included in the official crime statistics so proudly talked about.

There is also a good deal of cooperation among the police and criminals in Japan where the criminals are left alone as long as they follow unspoken and unwritten rules of conduct. One of my students works for a construction company that built their own office complex in an area of Tokyo, largely inhabited by organized crime members (yakuza). The company pays a protection fee to the yakuza in order to peacefully do business in the area.

Everyone plays nice and the police look the other way. The police often look the other way when crimes are confined to acts committed against other criminals and don’t involve “innocent” people outside of the criminal circles, so long as those crimes are kept off the media radar.

When perpetrators of petty crimes are discovered, they are sometimes hushed up. If a teenager steals someone’s laptop computer, there’s a good chance his parents will pay off the victim so charges will be dropped and embarrassment to the family can be avoided. As it is, the criminal justice system already has a near built-in system of awarding large cash sums to victims as part of settlements in cases involving minor infractions and altercations.

That is, if one man assaults another, there’s a good chance he’ll pony up between $10,000-$50,000 when his case gets to the judge, depending on his ability to pay. Considering this, there’s no reason why the victim shouldn’t simply take the pay-off and drop the case. It saves everyone time, trouble, and embarrassment.

The bottom line is that it’s a lot easier to have an impressively low crime rate when the police ignore criminal activity and the numbers stay artificially low as a result of some crimes not being included in the total.

A big problem is that most of the information disseminated about life in Japan is done so by tourists who are simply happy not to have to worry about their bags being snatched or their pockets picked – or by males who suffer from far less violent crime than women do.

Japan, for all its progress with women’s roles, is still a man’s paradise. Men have higher status and feel free to intimidate and bully women or those of lesser status if they are inclined to do so. Since men respect and are intimidated at the prospect of dealing with other men, especially foreign men, they are also less likely to be victims of certain types of crimes.

Men can confidently conclude their word will be taken more seriously than that of a woman should a case be taken before the police. In another case where a Japanese woman was raped by her stepfather, the police questioned the woman about why she allowed the man into her apartment and saw her as partially culpable due to her “poor judgment” in allowing him in. The fact that the man was a family member didn’t dissuade them from their feeling that she was asking for it.

It’s not just the police who believe women are at least partially to blame if they are raped. Even other Japanese women believe a woman who wears provocative clothing or puts herself in a position to be taken advantage of (walking alone late at night in an area frequented by drunken men) is responsible what has happened to her.

I’m not suggesting in any way that Japan is a dangerous place. I am emphatically stating it is not a safe place. Anyone who visits should not believe that all the Japanese people are somehow peaceful, passive, and incapable of criminal behavior. The same level of caution and diligence one exercises in one’s home country should be applied while visiting Japan. That goes double for you if you are a woman.

It’s not paranoid to believe the same sort of bad things can happen to you in Japan as can happen to you anywhere else. You may end up exercising more caution than necessary, but it’s better than failing to exercise as much as needed and to suffer the terrible consequences.

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