You might have heard: Japan is pretty safe. Low reported crime rates, strict gun controls, cultural behaviors and other factors play into this perception. I’ll be using statistical data as well as insights from my trip and from local opinions to form my conclusion on how safe Japan really is. But before I dive into the details, there are some general disclaimers. First, statistical analysis only offers a part of the picture. Based on the laws and practices of the area, crimes might be defined differently and reporting of such crimes might not be consistent across the board. Second, my personal experience is just that – it’s my experience. Obviously, you should abide by the laws and customs wherever you might be. If you’re looking for trouble, you’ll find it – even in the safest country in the world. Lastly, use common sense when traveling. Heed the warnings and act appropriately.
I’ll be doing a comparative analysis with countries around Japan and including the U.S.A. in this study. Note that blank spaces in the data below indicate that nothing was recorded for that year. Also, not all datasets include the same countries because data might not have been recorded, missing, or the definition for that crime is different for that particular country and, thus, was not included. Also note, data provided here can be found on unodc.org (I’ve done the work to narrow the focus and provide the data in a more condensed and format).
Japan has over 120 millions people and has many major metropolitan areas, yet its crime rate is especially low. In terms of assault per 100,000 residents, its 46.7 rate is very low relative to USA’s rate, which boasts an alarming 226.3. The assault rate seems to be stable. The trend line doesn’t indicate that the assault rate is going up or down too dramatically. I’m a little puzzled that Maldives’ rate is so high at 373.6 per 100,000 residents. Since only 350,000 people are living there, I’m willing to bet that these crimes are committed in pockets outside the resorts.
I am not at all surprised by Japan’s super low robbery rate at 2.6 per 100,000 residents. Japan’s economy is the 3rd largest in the world by nominal GDP. Its citizens enjoy one of the highest standards of living anywhere. The average life expectancy there is a whopping 83 years compared to the US’s 78 years. There is some correlation here between the high standards of living versus robbery. If people are getting by okay, there is probably not a need to rob people. On the other hand, Japan’s poverty rate is rising, and you would expect a rise in robbery and petty theft to rise as well, but the rate is actually decreasing. This might have something to do with Japan’s strict gun laws. It’s harder to rob someone when you don’t have a gun to threaten him/her with. I’ll talk more about this later.
At any rate, as a traveler you’re probably not going to get robbed in a corner somewhere.
I’m not sure why you would even think about renting a car in Japan. The public transportation system there is so amazing (I wish we had the Shinkansen super express trains here in the States) that it’d more of a nuisance to get around on a car than anything. Plus, you will run into some insane traffic in the cities. Even if you rent a car though, the probably that it would get stolen is pretty low. This is one of Japan’s less impressive stats, but as you can see it is still really marginal when compared to the US and Canada’s car theft rates, which are roughly 4 times as high.
If you’re a female traveler, you will find this comforting, at least at face value. Japan has one of the lowest sexual assault rates in the world. There are some measures provided to protect women in Japan: specially marked train cars in the subway for women only, police boxes scattered everywhere, and etc. However, it can be debated that because of Japan’s cultural attitudes towards rape, women are “shamed” and less inclined to report such crimes. As such, the numbers might be a lot worse than reported and shown here. Recent cases involving foreigners might shed some light on the matter. The debate on this matter continues and you may find it an interesting read by heading over to Quora.
As a general rule, don’t wander around at night by yourself. If you can’t help it, try to stay in the busier areas. RAINN has some great tips for staying safe while traveling.
While in Japan, I spent some time with a friend who lives in Yokohama and got some great insights. The Japanese works really long hours. However, they are particularly social creatures after work, most often going to local restaurants to eat, drink and chat. After 10 PM or so, the subways might start to fill up with intoxicated businessmen. So if you’re traveling alone, consider how late you might be out and plan accordingly.
Yes, the infamous Yakuza exists, but unlike the movies you might have seen with gun blazers shooting up the place, the homicide rate in Japan is spectacularly low. And when you look at the percentage of these homicides attributed to gun violence, it is outstandingly low. In America, 60% of homicides are attributed to gun violence. I wonder if ninjas and samurais account for the other 99% in Japan.
It is restrictively difficult to own a gun in Japan. While people do own guns there, the vast majority (and when I say vast I mean VAST) do not. People may own hunting rifles and shotguns, but they are difficult to get a license for. Before you can own a gun, you have to pass extensive background checks, you have to provide a reason for needing a gun, you have to take training classes, and well, you might just give up after a while. Do you want to learn more about Japan’s gun laws? Knock yourself out with these great reads: Library of Congress and the Japanese Law index translated to English. David Kopel also wrote an outstanding law review on Japan’s Gun Control. You might find it fascinating.
On a more interesting note, have you been to Oahu’s famous Waikiki Beach? If you have, you’ll notice that the majority of tourists in Oahu are Japanese. You’ll also notice people advertising shooting ranges like no other. They’re trying to draw Japanese tourists to try something they’ll probably never get a chance to do in Japan.
We had dinner with a friend who regaled us with delicious chicken dishes and stories of his life living in Japan. I’m going to recount such a story, which might shed some light on Japan’s low crime statistics. So this friend of mine was riding his bike to work. In America, bicyclists win. If you hit a bicyclist in America, you should find a good lawyer. Anyway, he might have exchanged some heated words with a trucker who subsequently ran him down (more or less). He ended up with a broken wrist that he is still rehabilitating. The police showed up and (I won’t bore you with too much details here) tried to convince him that it was an accident and that both parties were equally at fault. The police didn’t want to investigate the incident any more than that. Later, my friend consulted with a lawyer who explained to him the police wants to close cases quickly with as little findings as possible. In America, the trucker would have been charged with reckless driving and be fined handsomely.
Take from this story whatever you like. There are arguments that have poked holes in Japan’s incredibly low crime rates – one of which is the obsessive pursuit of keeping crime numbers low. A recent article by the Economist does a great job of providing a different perspective. It’s a great read if you’re interested.
I’ve provided some statistical data to support Japan’s perceived low crime rates. I’ve also provided a story and other data that might undermine those numbers somewhat. Personally, while I was traveling in Japan I did not experience anything that would indicate an unsafe country. Quite the contrary actually, my travels in Japan were pleasant and not once did I feel threatened or scared. People were courteous to a fault, and people were more interested in their own lives than they were mine. I felt safe moving about the country. But, that was my experience. If you are thinking of going to Japan or are in Japan, you should exercise the same rigor to protect yourself as you would any other strange land.
Travel on, my friends!