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    Men in uniform

    I don’t know that I have any readers who also live here in Japan, but if you do, it might interest you to read this from the Mainichi:

    Japan’s rank-and-file police officers are calling on the general public to protect themselves as they believe law enforcers alone cannot maintain peace and order, a National Police Agency (NPA) report showed on Friday.

    The 2004 NPA white paper asked 2,000 experienced officers working at local police boxes across Japan about “what is needed to maintain security.”

    A staggering 95 percent of them admitted that they alone could not maintain domestic order, the survey shows.

    Some 80 percent of them said that individuals should try to protect themselves, while 50 percent said citizens should form local crime prevention groups.

    Well, fine. I’m willing to take responsibility for my own protection*, but given that guns are illegal for private citizens here, what am I supposed to do? Rig up pongee sticks? Make sure to take that cleaver to the tinker’s regularly and sleep with it under the pillow?

    The neighborhood crime watch part sounds good, but it has a ways to go:

    When asked about how they have joined hands with local residents to prevent crime, about 50 percent of the polled officers said they had not established sufficient cooperation.

    When asked about what they wanted officers to improve, more than half of the polled citizens said they wanted more patrols.

    At the same time, many said they didn’t want to see police boxes with no officers.

    The white paper also questioned about 1,200 crime-prevention volunteer groups in Japan about the problems they face.

    About 60 percent of the groups said that volunteers were afraid of dangerous situations when they patrol.

    Now, it must be added that there’s almost certainly a SLOPs-like sampling issue here. That is, the places in Japan that actually have citizen crime patrols are likely to be places that have had crimes already. There’s no indication that Tokyo or Osaka is going to turn, wholesale, into London or DC. The social factors that keep crime low in Japan have been well-documented by others, and I’m on record as protesting against the Japan-is-going-to-hell strain in a lot of post-Bubble Western reporting. Nevertheless, the economic disruptions over the last ten years have increased everyday social pressures, and crime is increasing. I’m not just talking about crime committed by resident foreigners, which is the only kind Japanese people like to hear about. I mean also Japanese people turning to crime because they have zero employment prospects or have just gone unhinged. The number of crimes is low. It’s probably going to remain low; that’s one of the many good points of Japanese shame culture.

    But if you’re the victim of a crime, it’s not likely to be much comfort that you’re only one out of a statistical few thousand, or that the national crime rate is still lower than that of Indonesia. And like a lot of post-War American suburbs when violent and property crime began spreading outward from urban cores a few decades ago, most places in Japan are not designed for crime prevention. They were, rather, built under the assumption that things would always be safe.

    Case in point: The building Atsushi and I live in was built in 2000. It’s in one of the most populous wards of Tokyo, albeit in a residential area; but still, there was no security system to speak of until one of the ground-floor units was broken into. The front entrance had a keyboard/intercom system for admitting visitors, and the back doors to the parking garage required keys to enter. But all that separated the front doors to three ground-floor apartments from the parking lot was a four-foot wall with some shrubs in front of it. (And even now, the lobby and elevators are the only places in the building with security cameras.)

    Mark you, we’re among the lucky who live in a new building run by a responsive management company. A lot of apartment buildings in Tokyo have no doors at the entrances; the corridors are essentially open-air or accessible from fire escape-like stairways. And housing here, even a lot of high-end housing, tends to be made of flimsy materials: hollow-core outer doors, sliding picture windows with single panes of the approximate stoutness of sugar glass, uninsulated walls.

    As someone who’s lived in Philadelphia and New York, I’ll be interested to see how things develop. The thinking that citizens go about their business without fear because the government and police are looking after everyone’s safety is very deeply ingrained here. However unfortunate it is that vigilance against crime is becoming more necessary in Japan, it’s a good sign that this white paper has been publicized.

    Added on 3 October: Brian Tiemann is in New York and has posted his impressions. Interesting as always. He doesn’t mention this, but of course, one of the reasons Times Square is clean and safe now is the Giuliani administration’s very controversial “broken windows” approach to crime-fighting. The year I lived in New York was 1995-96; I’d spent a lot of time there before, but not as a resident. It’s fair to say–and even many of his supporters, I think, acknowledge this–that the mayor’s office and police were pretty high-handed in their dealings with citizens and businesses. Questions have also been raised about what some see as the virtual annexing of the Times Square/42nd Street area by Disney. Still, given New York’s reputation in the ’70’s and ’80’s, it’s not hard to see why people thought they had only two choices: ruthlessly stamp out every visible infraction of any law whatever, or live with junkies and streetwalkers in pedestrians’ faces.

    * Well, I would persuade my Japanese-citizen boyfriend to keep a gun in the apartment. I have the distinct feeling that even if guns were legal, foreigners wouldn’t be allowed to carry them.

    4 Responses to “Men in uniform”

    1. Toren says:

      One can draw interesting parallels between this situation and the one in NY, and the world post-9/11.
      You think?

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Oh, sure. It makes me wonder what changes in training for officers they may or may not be instituting. This is just supposition on my part, but I think it only makes sense: Patrol officers probably aren’t really trained to handle big-time dangerous interventions in crimes-in-progress. I mean, those who work in Kabuki-cho and…what’s that gangster neighborhood in Osaka with the high murder rate?…those cops may be. But I wonder whether the officers surveyed would feel so overwhelmed if they were taught to deal with a fuller range of surprises. Japan has the “broken windows” approach down pretty well already, after all; and its conviction rate is about as deterrent as you can get. Besides sheer numbers, preparation is likely to be the biggest worry on patrol officers’ minds.
      I focused on breaking-and-entering in this post because, that’s probably the biggest problem. But if there were an increase in muggings, things could get ugly pretty quickly until people adjusted their behavior. One reason people have no compunction about getting falling-down drunk and then staggering alone to a cab, with a Rolex and a wallet full of 10000 yen bills, is that they know they’re not going to have to defend themselves from an attacker.

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