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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 February 2008, 16:51 GMT
Gun crime rise alarms Japanese
By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

Japan is not a country you associate with serious crime.

Michio Tanaka in his home
Michio Tanaka's wife was killed by a man using a licensed gun

It has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, but figures published recently suggest the number of shootings here rose by a quarter last year, the first rise in five years.

Gangsters were blamed for two-thirds of the attacks but many Japanese are worried that, increasingly, licensed guns are being used for murder too.

In 2006 just two people were killed in gun attacks in Japan. Last year the number jumped to 22.

Although the numbers are small for such a populous country, the rate of increase is huge.

To get hold of a gun here, to hunt or for sport, you have to go through a lengthy process of police checks. Your family, your friends, your neighbours, even your work colleagues are supposed to be consulted.

But even though the regulations are tough, some people question just how properly the checks are carried out.

Police checks

Michio Tanaka's wife was shot dead by his neighbour just a month after the man had been given a licence to own a gun.

Mr Tanaka is 65. He still lives in the house where his wife was killed and the gunman turned the gun on himself.

The couple had been abused for years by their neighbour.

Mrs Tanaka recorded the incidents, some of which were violent, and reported them to the police.

A year before she was shot, the man tried to run her over with his car - and yet he was still given a licence for a shotgun.

He underwent police checks that were supposed to gauge his suitability to be a gun-owner.

The checks did not pick up on his decade-long feud with the couple that lived next door.


Mr Tanaka explains in great detail how his wife was gunned down, showing visitors the marks from the shotgun pellets on the balcony wall, the spot where she was killed.

Norihito Sasada, Japanese gun-owners' representative
I hope people understand that most people keep guns for sport, and that's the only reason
Norihito Sasada
Japanese gun-owners' representative

He is angry that this was allowed to happen. He blames the police for not carrying out the checks properly.

"When it came to deciding whether or not to give him a gun," Mr Tanaka says, "they [the police] could have done the right thing if they had checked what had happened in the past."

"When there are suspicions, people should not be given a gun," the widower argues.

"Without a permit I am sure my neighbour would not have been able to get hold of one."

Norihito Sasada, who represents gun-owners across Japan, argues the amount of publicity gun crime attracts is out of proportion with the actual level of threat out there on the streets.

"I've been involved with guns for 50 years," he says.

"When I look back, in terms of numbers, there have been relatively few crimes using these weapons."

Mr Sasada criticises the media for exaggerating the problem, arguing that gun crime gets more coverage than, for instance, knife crime.

"I hope people understand that most people keep guns for sport, and that's the only reason," he says.

Worrying trend

He's right the number of shootings is tiny for such a populous country.

But the point is that in a country where it has always been tiny, an 11-fold increase in the number of people killed over a 12-month period does have an impact.

A shooter on a Japanese rifle range
Japanese people face lengthy police checks to get a gun licence

People start to ask: "What's going on?"

Ichita Yamamoto is a member of parliament from the Liberal Democratic Party which governs Japan.

He believes that parliament has to look again at the gun laws to see if they are tight enough.

But he also fears the increase in gun violence could be a symptom of something more worrying.

"There are few people who do this kind of thing in Japanese society," he says.

"There is no culture in Japan that we shoot other people."

What concerns him though is that perhaps Japanese society is changing.

"Japanese traditional values have changed, the concept of family is changing, relations between people are changing," he says.

"A lot of people feel lonely or isolated, so this kind of incident could be something to do with changes of this kind."

Shootings do, as the gun-owners complain, get blanket coverage in the media.

But while newspaper columnists and pundits are good at wringing their hands about the fact that gun crime is increasing, they are not so successful when it comes to agreeing what it reveals about the state of Japanese society.

And more importantly, perhaps, they cannot agree on what to do about it.

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