The idea that Japan’s police are so bereft of crimes to deal with that they’ve begun inventing make-work schemes for themselves to alleviate the boredom has, at least, a somewhat more reputable source than many of the ideas about Japan which “go viral” across social media. The Economist published a piece more or less to that effect back in May1The Economist, May 18th 2017: “As crime dries up, Japan’s police hunt for things to do”; since then, it’s been picked up and turned into a series of catchy videos and meme images that have circulated widely on the likes of Facebook and Tumblr.
The idea is well on its way to joining the well-stocked shelf of myths and half-truths that the western world has uniformly accepted as the unvarnished truth about Japan (the sexless nation where men marry videogame characters; honourable Bushido-code following salarymen; droves of wacky young fashionistas with LEDs in their teeth and saline-injected lumps in their foreheads; the list is near-endless). “Japan, where crime is so low that the police have nothing to do” is a nice, easily digestible nugget of knowledge that will doubtless be dispensed and re-dispensed for years to come. It is also, unfortunately, a gross misrepresentation of the reality.
Certainly, Japan’s police do engage in make-work schemes for themselves. The account in the Economist’s article of police staking out a “honeypot” – an unlocked car containing a case of beer – for days on end to see who would fall for the trap is entirely credible. Police here are also well-known for spending countless man-hours on stopping cyclists to randomly check if their bicycle was stolen, and assigning large teams of officers to investigate incredibly minor crimes. However, even as the police amuse themselves by figuring out ways to catch the town drunk or harass teenage cyclists, they continue to studiously ignore a whole set of serious crimes that slide by under the radar in “safe” Japan.
The same police who jump into action at the hint of a possibly-stolen bicycle are routinely indolent and useless in the face of reports of sexual assault or domestic violence. The government’s own statistics suggest that 1 in 4 Japanese women were physically abused by their partners in 2015, while the World Health Organisation places the figure even higher, at around 1 in 32Rob Gilhooly, “Domestic Violence: ‘Abuse was all I knew’“, Japan Times, May 7 2016. Estimated figures for rape vary significantly; around 1,200 to 1,500 are reported every year3National Police Agency, 平成２６、２７年の犯罪情勢 (Heisei 26, 27 Crime Situation), but the Ministry of Justice reckons that less than 1 in 5 cases of rape are ever reported to the police, while other estimates suggest the figure may be as low as 1 in 20. As for sexual assault, groping and molestation (痴漢, chikan) on crowded trains and elsewhere is so widespread (and so unlikely to be reported to the police) that NGOs such as the Osaka-based Chikan Deterrence Activity Centre (痴漢抑止活動センター)4痴漢抑止活動センター suggest that almost every young woman experiences it at some point5Annette Ekin, “Sexual Assault in Japan: ‘Every Girl was a Victim’“, Al Jazeera, March 8 2017.
To some degree, Japan’s police have had their hands tied by the failure of the legal code itself to deal with these issues. Domestic violence was simply not handled by the Japanese criminal code until 2001, and the original legislation introduced was full of serious problems that had to be addressed in multiple revisions; even now, it largely fails to provide women and children with protection in cases of serial domestic violence. Until just a few months ago, the legal definition of rape was so narrow that even some shocking cases of penetrative sexual assault fell under less serious legal definitions, often punishable only with a moderate fine, while forced intercourse through coercion or threat was largely ignored due to the lack of physical violence involved6Linda Sieg and Ami Miyazaki, “Japan moves towards first major rape law changes in a century“, Reuters, June 8 2017. Moreover, victims had to press charges in order to allow a prosecution to proceed, meaning that silencing a victim through either a pay-out or a threat was an effective way to allow perpetrators to avoid justice.
Yet even as the country’s laws have slowly but surely improved in recent decades, the police force itself has often seemed to bury its head in the sand – far more interested in chasing imaginary bike thieves than in daring to cross over the threshold between the public and private spheres of life, which was formerly considered inviolable. The Japanese police force is almost entirely male (around 90% of uniformed officers are male), which not only creates an intimidating experience for a recently raped or assaulted woman wishing to report her ordeal – stories of incredulous officers brusquely demanding humiliating details or bluntly accusing victims of dishonesty are common – it also creates a strong cultural norm against their crossing the threshold of another man’s home to intervene in what many officers consider to be his private family life.
This is not, of course, unique to Japan; indeed, while molestation on crowded trains is particularly endemic to Japan (not least, presumably, because of just how many crowded trains there are), the figures estimated by the government and NGOs for domestic violence and rape are broadly in line with figures for other developed countries. The argument is not that Japan stands out as a country where these crimes against women and children are prevalent; rather, it’s that in a country where other types of serious crime are so uncommon and the well-manned and well-resourced police force is reduced to make-work schemes, crimes against women and children are still not being taken seriously. This has tragic consequences in some cases; with less than 10% of reported cases of domestic violence resulting in an arrest, a woman is killed by her intimate partner in Japan every three days7National Police Agency, 平成２６、２７年の犯罪情勢 (Heisei 26, 27 Crime Situation), while police failure to take reports of stalking seriously has also led to at several murders in recent years8Julian Ryall, “Stalkers taking toll on Japanese society“, DW, February 24 2014.
There are signs that the country and its police force are starting to take these issues more seriously, with tougher laws in place and the police showing more willingness to investigate crimes against women. This week saw extensive reporting of a molestation charge against a student of Keio University, who assaulted a woman in an alleyway9TV Asahi News, 「綺麗で触りたい」”ミスター慶應SFC”出場の学生, August 23 2017 – the latest in a series of high-profile cases involving students at elite universities, the severity of which have ranged from groping to gang rape. That these cases are being investigated and brought to light is positive, and will hopefully encourage other victims to come forward and seek justice.
However, it is striking that when news crews interviewed the alleged assailant’s classmates and colleagues, none of them expressed any surprise; the standard reaction seemed to be that this was pretty much what they expected from him, which strongly suggests that he had done this kind of thing before, likely in the company of others. Young women who are assaulted at drinking parties or other such events generally feel that they cannot report the incident to the police; their attendance at a drinking party and consumption of alcohol will be held against them, and their report won’t be taken seriously or acted upon. Nobody will ever know how many victims someone like the athletic Keio student accused in this incident, or young actor Yuta Takahata, who allegedly raped a woman working at a hotel before paying her to drop the charges10Kyodo, “Takahata rape case dropped; actor says he is sorry“, September 9 2016, manage to go through before miscalculating and doing something the police will actually take action about.
The Japanese police are by no means all terrible; in many regards, they do a superb job. They excel at maintaining public order in busy places, at handling drunks and breaking up fights without anyone getting hurt, and generally at the day-to-day “uniformed policeman on the beat” tasks of their role. The idea that they have no work to do due to a low crime rate, however, is simply wrong at best, and mendacious at worst. There is plenty of crime in Japan; but crime against women or children, crime within families or relationships, is crime that the police don’t want to investigate or deal with, and their attitude has actively dissuaded victims from seeking their assistance. Protecting Japan’s women and children from these crimes should take priority over staking out cases of beer.
Rob Fahey is an Assistant Professor at the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study (WIAS) in Tokyo, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Milan's School of Social and Political Sciences. He was formerly a Research Associate at the Waseda Institute for Political Economy (WINPEC). His research focuses on populism and polarisation, the impact of conspiracy theory beliefs on political behaviour, domestic Japanese politics, and the use of text mining and network analysis techniques for political and social analysis. He received his Masters and Ph.D from Waseda University, and his undergraduate degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.