Recent analyses of safety take into consideration not only prevention capability but also resilience against crime-induced disasters such as terrorism and mass-shootings, and natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes. Japan hardly ever has any of the former kind due to the obvious no-brainer safety policy of banning guns, but gets major typhoons and earthquakes every now and then. However the size of risk traveling and living there still stays at the bottom of the world.
So while it lags in economic growth and innovation compared to other developed countries, what is it that Japan does so well to keep its top position in the safety ranking? Here’s a complete explanation.
- 1. What are the chances of running into crime?
- 2. How is violent crime kept under control?
- 3. How is general crime kept to a minimal?
- 4. What crimes should I watch out for?
1. What are the chances of running into crime?
The chances of running into violent crime is close to zero in Japan. Only 1 person is murdered out of every 2 million people every year in Japan, which is 25 times safer than being in the US, and 310 times safer than being in El Salvador, the worst country to be in in terms of homicide.* So basically if you are a resident in Japan, you put your life at risk by traveling to another country, and if you live outside Japan, you increase the chance of survival by traveling to Japan.
The number of violent crimes (which includes murder, murder attempts and rape) has been recording an all-time low since 2015, and 86.6% of all violent crimes resulted in arrests in 2017. The police have been demonstrating non-tolerance towards violent crimes, and their accomplishment is metaphorical to an Olympic gold medalist overwriting the world record she had set herself the previous year.
2. How is violent crime kept under control?
So how is violent crime kept under control? After the Japanese police had been criticized for having brushed off claims from a woman who was stalked, who eventually ended up being murdered by the stalker in 1999 (the police wouldn’t do much to help until crime had actually occurred back then), they shifted priorities to resolve and prevent types of crimes that are life-threatening.
Below is a graph representing the number of reported crimes. You can see that the number climbed after 1998 and this was because the police started to comply with claims of incidents that were not too commonly considered crimes back then, like stalking and domestic violence. As a result, Japan found so many crimes that would have gone unnoticed, and therefore the surge of reported violent crimes.
After reaching a peak in the early 2000s, the police curbed crime down to 4,840 cases in 2017.* This suggests you have somewhere close to 0.004% chance of being a victim of a violent crime while being in Japan.
3. How is general crime kept to a minimal?
There are two factors unique to Japan’s law enforcement that seem to keep general crime to a bare minimal.
One is Japan’s setting up Kobans (police boxes) all around the country. Kobans are where 2 to 3 police officers are stationed 24 hours a day all year. They help out people in trouble at an extremely local level and patrol the neighborhood too.
Reporting of crimes, lost items and any form of seeking help can be done right away because Kobans are generally within reasonable walking distance in the city. There are 824 Kobans just in Tokyo which is 2188㎢, so roughly speaking, there is a Koban or in other words an approachable police officer every 2.65km.
It’s common understanding that crime increases as society industrialize and urbanize, and as a matter of fact, crime in the US, UK and Germany doubled to tripled during the period between 1960 and 1980. However during the same time, crime in Japan only increased by 1/10.*
Something was clearly going on in Japan regarding safety from the eyes of social scientists, and the Koban system has attracted attention from countries struggling to control crime.
So Brazil is not considered the safest place to be, and the state of São Paulo tried setting up Kobans in one of the Jardins districts in 1997 because 600 people were getting killed every year. Now with police officers patrolling 24 hours a day, the number of homicides is down to 3 per year. Brazil has set up 600 Kobans in 12 states and is looking into expanding the program to all states.*
Japan has given technical support regarding the Koban system to Indonesia, Cambodia and Singapore, and the system has become an export.
4. What crimes should I watch out for?
There is, however, a small downside to the police doing well in suppressing big crimes: the rise of non-life-threatening thefts. Because the finite police officer resources tend to get assigned to addressing more serious offenses, petty crimes, namely thefts of bags, wallets and bicycles, are more likely to end up being unresolved.
As stated before, 86.6% of violent crimes result in arrest. But on the other hand, the overall rate of arrest is only 35.7% (data from 2017). So if you get something stolen, you may not want to hope for it to come back. But having said that, the theft rate in Japan is one of the lowest in the developed world: your bag is 6 times safer in Japan than in the US, and 0.8 times safer than in Singapore.
Putting theft aside, if you mistakenly leave your belongings somewhere, there is a fairly good chance they will come back in one piece. There are numerous stories in which lost wallets came back with all the cash and credit cards untouched.
Depending on where you think you left your item, go to the aforementioned Koban or a lost-and-found counter of a train station, theme park or hotel, and you may end up being thankful for the goodwill of the locals.
At crowded eateries, you will see locals and tourists leave their belongings at an empty seat while they go to the counter to order food or go to the restroom, in order to secure themselves the seat. It’s very rare that these belongings get stolen.
Japan as a community underwent a movement which would loosely translate to “all citizens all middle class” between the 1960s and 1970s, and as a matter of fact, it was found out through a series of government-run surveys that, to this day, 90% of respondents all around Japan considered themselves to be middle class, and less than 10% considered themselves to be low class.
Most people in Japan do not feel they are in need of monetary gains through committing a crime. But more importantly, because they feel pride in being middle class like almost the entire population, the fear of being seen as being in a state of need may be the primary reason a majority of them do not steal. This is also why they even go as far as to pick up misplaced wallets to take them to the nearest police box without taking what’s inside.
Pride of not being needy is also part of the explanation to why Japanese people just do not raid convenience stores and loot food and other necessities upon being hit by tsunamis and earthquakes. They instead cue patiently in front of convenience stores to buy stuff they need during such times. Generally, maintaining order by distributing resources fairly is valued over individuals gaining a leg up by getting away with crime during turmoil.
However, the Gini coefficient (an index to measure income gap) of Japan has been rising quite steadily since the 1980s, and the income gap is increasing every year. Japanese people are starting to feel the gap, and the fact that Japan ranks down at *21st place among 35 OECD countries in terms of income equality coheres with the shift in people’s sentiments in this aspect.
Again, the number of reported thefts has increased and with the income gap on the rise, this category of crime is not expected to downsize. So watch out for your bags. The chances of your belongings being taken in Japan is increasing, unfortunately.
But keeping an eye on your belongings is a basic cautionary measure anywhere in the world, and as long as you have that in a corner of your mind, you are least likely to be a victim of any crime. Welcome to one of the safest travel destinations in the world.