Guns in Japan Laws, Carriers, and Stigma

    It’s a tense time in America. After several mass shootings in the last year or so (including one not too far from Tofugu HQ), some people in the US have started looking into reforming our gun laws.

    With reform on the table, some Americans are looking at other countries for ideas on how to shape new law. One of the places that’s been getting a lot of attention in Japan.

    Japan is at one extreme when it comes to gun culture. There are tight gun laws, few gun owners, and even fewer gun deaths. In recent years, there have only been about a dozen deaths in Japan annually from firearms.

    So how do the Japanese do it? What does Japan’s gun culture (or lack thereof) look like?

    What Are Gun Laws Like in Japan?

    Gun laws in Japan are some of the strictest in the entire world. There are laws against owning a gun, owning bullets, and discharging a firearm. Basically, any sort of interaction with guns is illegal in Japan, unless you’re licensed, or with the police or military.

    sign at Hawaiian shooting range
    _Some Japanese tourists find going to a Hawaiian shooting range easier than buying a gun in Japan_
    Source: Ryan Ozawa

    Even if you belong to that small portion of the population that can own a gun, there are a lot of restrictions, even if you’re dead. In one particular instance, a police officer who had committed suicide with his service weapon was posthumously charged with a crime.

    And that small population can only own certain types of guns. You can basically buy guns for sporting and hunting, which limits it to shotguns and air rifles. Handguns and semi-automatic weapons are strictly forbidden.

    How Do You Get a Gun in Japan?

    Getting a gun in Japan is really, really hard. There are many steps that you have to go through before you can actually buy a gun. These steps include:

    • Written test, only offered on certain dates.
    • Psychiatric evaulation.
    • Drug test.
    • Criminal background check.
    • Gun skills competency test.

    Only after you pass all of those will you be eligible to buy a gun. Even if you pass all of these tests, it’s not uncommon for the police to periodically and informally check up on gun owners. One retired Japanese police officer recalls that

    Sometimes, police officers even go to the neighborhoods where a gun owner lives and interview neighbors to make sure the owner isn’t causing problems or having issues with his spouse.

    Clearly, buying a gun in Japan is a serious committment and responsibility.

    How Many People Own Guns in Japan?

    A very, very small percentage of the Japanese people own guns (close to 0.1% of the population) and that percentage has been declining for years. In 2011 there were only a little over 120,000 licensed gun owners in Japan, down from 140,000 a few years earlier.

    yakuza tattoos on front and back of torso

    Of course, like with any law, there are those who slip through the cracks. Yakuza own guns, but less and less so. Because illegally owning a gun carries such stiff penalties, the yakuza would rather avoid guns altogether than get taken down for such an easily avoidable offense.

    How Does Japan Compare to the Rest of the World?

    As I said earlier, the Japanese have some of the lowest rates of gun ownership and gun deaths in the world, but I wanted to see how Japan stacked up against the rest of the world.

    I grabbed data from the Small Arms Survey, the CDC, and the UN, and graphed the numbers for the five countries who visit Tofugu the most. Here are the numbers:

    table of gun ownership and deaths per capita

    And here they are graphically:

    graph of gun ownership per capita
    graph of gun deaths per capita

    Obviously, the Japanese approach to gun law has worked well in Japan, but it’s not a strategy that would work everywhere in the world.

    For instance, Switzerland has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world, but still has a relatively low crime rate. These sorts of laws are so dependent on a country’s history and culture that it’s not really something that you can just copy and paste law from place to place.

    Even if the Japanese approach isn’t something that everybody can adopt, it’s still an interesting example for the entire world to look at.