Japan's gun-free society under fire

VIOLENT crime involving shootouts, helicopter chases and police stakeouts used only to be seen on television in Japan. But these days the country's image as a relatively safe and gun-free society is taking a battering as three real-life crimes dominate newspapers and the television news. In all three incidents guns were used, despite a law banning any civilian from owning handguns.

Last Wednesday a 23-year-old man wanted in connection with a series of offences was cornered by police in a love hotel outside Tokyo. The police went to arrest the man, not expecting him to be armed.

But the man, who was on amphetamines, suddenly produced a gun and started shooting. One policeman was killed and another seriously wounded. The suspect escaped and was only captured the next day, after a massive police manhunt, but not before he had taken two hostages and injured a housewife.

No sooner was the man behind bars than police were called out on another manhunt, this time in Chiba prefecture just east of Tokyo. Two men had stolen the relatively small sum of 570,000 yen (less than pounds 2,500) from a pinball parlour, but again they were both carrying guns. After a seven-hour chase, in which the police called in a helicopter, the two men escaped.

On Friday the calm of a small town in the southern prefecture of Okayama was shattered when three men involved in the building trade were shot dead. The 48- year-old head of a small tiling company was arrested for allegedly shooting the men in what police described as a business feud.

These three incidents have shocked Japan, and at a cabinet meeting Kiichi Miyazawa, the Prime Minister, said strong action should be taken to stop the smuggling and distribution of handguns in Japan. 'I would like to see the sense of unease among the people eliminated with progress on anti-handgun measures,' he said.

Until recently, the only people regularly carrying firearms in Japan were members of the yakuza underworld gangs, and shootings usually were confined to inter-gang conflicts. But none of last week's killings were directly related to yakuza affairs.

Paradoxically, one of the reasons for the spread of handguns seems to be an ongoing police crackdown on the yakuza. Since a law targeting organised crime went into effect in March, many yakuza members - who are usually known to the police - are thought to have sold their weapons to petty criminals to avoid the police dragnet. Since March, one quarter of the guns confiscated by the police belonged to non-yakuza members.

Statistically, Japan is still much safer than most other countries in the world - per capita, Western Europe has four times as many murders as Japan, and in the US the murder rate is eight times higher. But the incidence of murder and armed robbery is going up in Japan.

Some commentators blame US influence for the rise in violent crime. 'Criminal use of guns and cars strikes us as a growing Americanisation of crime in this country,' said the daily Mainichi newspaper on Sunday. 'Perhaps this is inevitable, given the increasing assimilation of that life-style across the Pacific into our own.'

Much has been made of Japan's total ban on private ownership of firearms, compared to the legal right to bear arms enjoyed by most Americans. But there is no evidence that Americans are actively importing guns into Japan.

On the contrary, the appetite for guns seems to originate from Japan's own criminals, who are becoming increasingly international in their outlook. Last year, about one third of the guns confiscated by police were smuggled in from Russia.

(Photograph omitted)