In a country where the April cherry blossoms signify the beginning of the school year, where watermelons are considered a welcome dessert, and where clothing is prohibited at the hot-springs, the Japanese people can enjoy the peace and security that has been cultivated through centuries of history. But just how safe is it really in Japan?
In order to answer this question, we need to parse out the meaning of the word “safety.” First of all, let’s consider what most people are thinking: Crime. Japan has an already very small crime rate, which Nippon.com reports as actually falling in recent years:
The number of reported crimes in Japan peaked at 3.69 million in 2002 and has since been on the decline, according to the Ministry of Justice’s 2012 white paper on crime. A major contributing factor is the ongoing reduction in thefts, which account for over half of reported crimes.
[. . .] Crimes like murders by stalkers and child kidnapping cases receive sensational media coverage, but many smaller crimes remain unreported and unresolved. So even if the reported crime rate is falling, this does not mean that ordinary citizens feel safer.
Some crimes, including bank transfer scams targeting the elderly and drug offenses, have grown more frequent in recent years. Cybercrime is also growing in frequency and scale.
The point here is that most people think about crime when they think of safety. In fact, most people think of violent crime. And when it comes to violent crime, Japan is incredibly safe.
Looking at the victim rates for 10 common crimes including robbery, extortion, and theft, Japan’s 2005 rate was 9.9%, the second lowest for any OECD country, behind Spain.
For serious crimes (murder, robbery, rape, and assault) it consistently had the lowest rate. Japan’s victim rate rose from 8.5% in 1990 to 11.9% in 2000, but fell again to 9.9% in 2005.
On a more anecdotal note, everyone who comes to Japan for an extended period of time (e.g., teaching English for a year, a very common route) has the same story after they get here. It goes something like this: “I accidentally lost/dropped my wallet/bag, and I only realized an hour later… but sure enough, it was returned to me later without anything taken!” I am sure Japanese tourists must be some of the least street-smart people in the world, taking for granted the lack of crime that contrasts with the experience so many people have in other countries.
In fact, this feeling of safety isn’t simply limited to the small-town statistics that cover the majority of the country. The Safe Cities Index for this year, a ranking produced by the Economist said that Tokyo, one of the biggest cities in the world, actually ranks as the world’s safest. In fact, Japan’s 2nd-biggest city – Osaka – ranks 3rd. Can you imagine your country’s two biggest cities ranking in the world’s top 3 safest? This is a distinction any nation would be happy to boast about.
However, less people think about safety as the more unanticipated dangers that lurk just around the corner, so to speak. Japan is, after all, one of the most seismically active countries in the world. And with such activity comes the problems that last far longer than the shakes themselves. The trauma, the lingering mental and community issues, as well as economic costs plague the already devastated areas. For example, the effects of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and radiation disaster at Fukushima are still being felt today.
Such incidents remind us that no amount of education and preparation strategies can prevent the forces of nature. This is something that most people (for understandable reasons) don’t think about when considering national safety.
The Bottom Line
Japan is without a doubt an exceptionally safe country. Especially when it comes to violent crimes, it is practically a utopia. As Japan-expert and journalist Jake Adelstein mentions, “Even gangsters live in fear of Japan’s gun laws.” When it comes to earthquakes, it’s one of the more dangerous places, but unanticipated disasters happen in every country, especially now that climate change is creating more extreme weather throughout the world.
So for all of Japan’s problems (every country has plenty), keep in mind that Japan is one of the most safe and secure places in the world.
[Edit: The story of a woman in America who was arrested for leaving her children alone (while still in her line of sight) in order to go for a job interview is remarkable to Japanese people. The woman was physically only meters away from her children, but this was enough to apparently be considered a crime. In Japan, children routinely go to school (go anywhere, in fact) by themselves; but some countries would consider this child abuse. This incident just reflects the state of personal safety that contrasts with other societies.]