Murder in Japan

TOKYO, Japan — Late last year, the outspoken new financial services minister, Shizuka Kamei, launched a blistering attack on corporate Japan, accusing it of raising the murder rate among families by laying-off workers to increase profits. Meanwhile, the media is full of stories of heinous crimes and tragic victims. A recent poll showed a record high 86 percent of people support capital punishment.

In the face of these developments, not to mention rising inequality and poverty, you might think the wheels are coming off Japan’s famously ordered society.

But you'd be wrong. In some ways the exact opposite is true, especially when it comes to violent crime: There were fewer murders recorded in 2009 than in any year in the post-war era.

The 1,097 murders in Japan last year were, according to statistics from the National Police Agency (NPA), down 200 from the previous year, a third of the number in 1954. This is out of a population of 127 million, in the middle of the worst recession since the war.

This represents less than a tenth of the murder rate in the U.S., and a hundredth of that of the most violent countries in the Caribbean and South and Central America. So why, despite the tough times, are fewer Japanese people killing each other, and why do anywhere between 50 percent and 85 percent of the population think the country is becoming more dangerous?

One reason may actually be weakening interpersonal relationships. The biggest falls have been recorded in killings involving people who knew each other, which make up the majority of murders in most countries. The NPA said that grudges were the motivation for 466 murders in 1985, but only 194 by 2008.

Similarly, murders involving work relationships fell from 104 to 61 over the same period while those among friends and acquaintances fell from 317 to 254. Some commentators have suggested that in an increasingly impersonal society, fewer people actually appear to care enough about others to kill them.

Nobuko Sago, who helps run a telephone counseling service in Tokyo for people facing difficulties in their lives, believes there has been a weakening of ties, particularly between younger people in recent years.

Another cause is demographic, says professor Koichi Hamai, a prominent criminologist from Ryukoku University Corrections and Rehabilitation Research Center.“One reason for the fall is the aging society, the number of people in their 20s — which is the peak age for murder — is falling, and with it, the murder rate is falling steadily.”

It is not only murder. Most types of crime have become scarcer across Japan. Contrary to popular perception, youth crime has also been dropping, and one of the few areas that is getting worse is actually crime by the elderly.

Hamai has researched the contradiction between increasing panic about crime, and the reality of the falling rate. One of his studies tracked crime reporting in the liberal Asahi newspaper over a twenty-year period (1985-2004) when homicide rates trended downward. Even as the frequency of such incidents was falling, he found the number of articles that contained the words “heinous” and “murder” increased exponentially — inevitably leading many to get the erroneous impression that the nation was in the grip of a serious crime wave.

“The media coverage of murder cases has changed over the years: it’s much more sensationalist, it portrays offenders as monsters, and focuses in much greater detail on the victims and the cruelest elements of crimes,” says Hamai, who previously spent many years working in the Ministry of Justice.

Moreover Japanese have a high level of trust in their media.

“People believe what is reported in the media in Japan, around trust 90 percent newspapers and 80 percent of TV. This is way higher than in other countries,” says Professor Hamai.

“In other research I carried out 50 percent of people thought that crime had greatly increased in Japan, but only 4 percent felt it had in their neighborhood. That’s a huge gap,” he adds.

Jake Adelstein, who worked for 12 years on the crime beat of the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s and the world’s biggest newspaper, believes crime stories are essentially a cheap and dependable alternative to other types of stories.

“The Personal Privacy Laws have made investigative journalism very burdensome and expensive, and a flood of court decisions against the media in libel cases further put a damper on edgy articles,” says Adelstein. “Articles on crime fill the gaps, and mistakes can be blamed on the police. Thus, it's safe and cheap. It's economics at work.”

Some older Japanese people like to reminisce, as do elderly folk in many places, how they used to be able to leave their keys in their doors. The truth is, they are probably safer doing it now than they have ever been.

If only someone would let them know it.