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Murder in Japan

Analysis: Killings are down. So why is anxiety up?

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.