Why is There No Crime in Japan?- Insider vs. Outsider: Culture Lesson # 12

Have you noticed that throughout all the turmoil in Japan, where after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant debacles, the media stories bombard us with news of black outs, curtailed train schedules and empty grocery store shelves but fail to mention riots, looting or increases in crime? Have the confined incidences stopped or has it not started? The Japanese I observed stoically waited for late trains and stood politely in lines at virtually empty grocery stores.  Where is the tremendous crime wave to accompany the reduced store hours and electricity black outs? Where are the bad guys?

On a normal day crime is virtually non-existent. As an example, through out Japan vending machines sell everything from books to drinks, operate 24 hours a day, are well-lit, always clean, electronic, and consistently in working order. Never does one find oneself beating the machine senseless for the drink now balanced precariously- but not dropping- at the top of the shelf. In fact, so pristine are they that both cold and hot drinks are available from the same machine. Never tampered with or covered in graffiti, they are located on every street corner. Truly, given their illumination and sheer number, each marking regular intervals down the sidewalk, street lights aren’t needed at night.

Another example: children as young as 6 routinely ride the subway unaccompanied. Nary a clutchy parent in site. Every time I see one I get nervous- apparently for no reason for as I snuck this picture, everyone on the train started to watch me suspiciously for fear I might be the bad guy on it.

Just one more- I’ve had my eye on two metal chairs that someone thoughtfully placed at the bus stop for the comfort of the waiting neighbors. I’ve watched these chairs with greed in my heart for 8 months, as they sit, unmolested, unchained, for all passers-by to grab and yet still they remain. Obviously this isn’t my old neighborhood where any unclaimed item within 10 feet of the curb was fair game for anyone with a means to transport it.

My Japanese friends explain the lack of crime, and maybe the reason behind the lack of  a massive crime wave post earthquake, has to do with the Japanese concept of the Insider vs. the Outsider and putting the group well-being above that of the individual. In the old days, Japanese lived in villages where all were taken care of regardless of ability. Everyone contributed to the management of the village in some way and in return, the poorer members were fed and housed. The village was the Inside. As long as one was a member of the village, an Insider, all needs would be met. If a person did something criminal, that person was cast out of the village- and would become an Outsider. The Outsider no longer had the advantages associated with having all needs met and became completely self sustaining- probably to their detriment. For that reason, people did not want to become Outsiders as it became both a survival and a social issue.

Committing a crime, which negatively impacts the overall group, causes the criminal to become an Outsider. This desire to remain part of the Inside group, and/or not to appear different, is the crux which keeps the criminal activity to a minimum. Additionally, the laws when caught are harsh and swift.  I like to remind the Offspring should they get any ideas about illicit substances, that if caught, they can be put in jail for 30 days. During that time, the police are not required to call the Embassy or the parents. At the end of the 30 days, both they and the family are deported. Activity such as fighting, drunken public behavior are also not tolerated therefore the repercussions of having a negative engagement with a policeman carry catastrophic consequences.

The stores and businesses are running on 5-8 hour days in order to save power which leaves one of the largest cities in the world in complete darkness. Hopefully, this strong cultural influence which focuses the people on taking care of those in need and douses the desires of would be offenders, will continue as Japan struggles with this horrible crisis.

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82 Responses to Why is There No Crime in Japan?- Insider vs. Outsider: Culture Lesson # 12

  1. Wow, this is truly remarkable! We could all learn a lot from the Japanese. I think the old African village tradition was similar, but that’s long since gone.

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  2. Bob says:

    Very interesting. I have often wondered about the low crime rate in Japan even at the best of times. I heard something very intriguing also I hope you can clarify. Is it true that after the disaster that row upon row of supermarket shelves were empty but yet the liquor remained intact?

    In any large western city that would be the first isle to go bare.

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    • amblerangel says:

      Yes- true stories Bob. Interesting thing is that the liquor probably accounts for at least 10% of the shelf space in each store- I’ll never forget during the earthquake hearing it fall to the floor and the smell of it after.

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  3. I am so glad to hear from you…the information you bring is fascinating and I am in awe of this society of honor with morals and structure…but mostly I am glad to here from you!
    Chris

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  4. Japan is truly a remarkable and extraordinary country.

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  5. I hereby pay my respect sincerely from the bottom of my heart to all the japanese…

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  6. Wow, this is fascinating–especially in comparison to Haiti–my goodness! What a strange juxtaoposition between the two islands!

    Not in Haiti anymore,
    Kathy

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  7. TheIdiotSpeaketh says:

    I spent the first 3 years of my life in Tokyo. Obviously I don’t remember it, but my parents told me about many of the same things you mentioned here. We could all stand to learn a number of lessons from Japanese Society.

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  8. mitsuko says:

    Hi, I really enjoy reading your humor filled blog – just came across after the earthquake. Thanks for sharing your insights.
    I just wanted to share a fundraising deal that’s going on right now, if any of your friends might be willing to contribute to American Red Cross ($5), LivingSocial.com will be matching it. Thanks!

    http://livingsocial.com/deals/32115-5-for-10-donation-to-red-cross-relief-efforts

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  9. Hemlock says:

    I grew up listening to my great grandmother tell me stories about when she lived Japan in the 70s(?). I don’t remember to well. Anyways, they used to call her the Crazy Gaijin. When she’d tell me about her escapades I couldn’t help but wish I’d been born in Japan. A lot of people feel they’ve been born in the wrong time period, I think I’ve just been born in the wrong place. :S

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  10. Remarkable attitude and shame we cannot learn from them, but I suppose it’s cultural differences in how we see the world, shame really. Love those vending machines, which reminds me, you don’t see too many vending machines in London…hmm

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  11. Tori Nelson says:

    I think it boils down to Good People Are Good People (even when no one’s watching)! Thanks for this insight into Japanese culture and hoping you all get light soon!

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  12. Dana says:

    It’s pretty incredible to hear about the differences between North American and Japanese culture. Where I live in mostly-polite Canada, we had to cancel our compost pick-up service because somebody kept *stealing our compost bin* before the pick-up guys could take it away (even though it was just a plastic bucket filled with decomposing kitchen scraps- yuck!!) I’m sure our compost would have been safer in Japan. 🙂

    It’s always reassuring to hear from you– glad that you and your family are safe and well.

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  13. MP says:

    We had that exact conversation at my office.. North America, South America, Europe, Africa.. you would NOT see such calm. You witness a line of 100’s of people, one person in need of help just as much as the next.. yet there is no pushing, no shoving.. no cheating.. It’s refreshing .. because we know after Katrina that carrying a 50″ Plasma you took from a destroyed retail store over your head in waist high sewage really doesn’t help anyone.

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  14. paul says:

    You answered you own question in the last two paragraphs. It is quite remarkable that the Japanese seem to respect their elders and others. It is a pity that those of European descent semm to be more interested in material possesions and themselves, to the detrement of others. Bad luck about the Earthquake but it seems to take a disaster of this magnitude to to the attention of the world the goodness that should be inside us all!

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  15. Michi says:

    Wow. Just WOW. D-Man and I were talking about this yesterday, because we noticed how NONE of the live footage showed any signs of looting or chaos initiated by people. We determined it to be cultural, and your post completely determines it. I think it’s wonderful that an entire country is capable of maintaining their self composure during this very difficult time. More power to them.

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  16. pixygiggles says:

    I just wanted to say that I am really enjoying your blog. I happened across it after the earthquake in Japan. This post fascinates me. I certainly agree that Americans could learn a lot from the Japanese culture. They sound so much more civilized. My boyfriend and I had actually commented about how we hadn’t heard of any looting or anything like that since the earthquake. I find it quite commendable.
    Good luck to you and your family! I look forward to continuing to read about your adventures. New Reader from TN, Patricia

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  17. kasuross says:

    Wow, so interesting inferences ^^.
    It’s fascinating to notice such differences between American and Japaneese culture. I think it works also when it comes to European too. Recently somebody came and coned my 100-year-old-greatgrandmother and stole her tv, can you inagine? And here, no such events.

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  18. Tony says:

    I really do find Japanese culture captivating, but there are some things you mention I question your sincerity. To say that there is no crime in Japan is not entirely true, albeit, not as much as say the Americas, crime does exist. Japan, as well as other nations are required to notify the embassy if one of their Countrymen/woman violates any laws and requires incarceration of said individual. If they dont, they violate international law. There are so many erroneous beliefs regarding Japan and its people. I have traveled to Japan, finding its culture to be refreshing. To say its free from crime, you are doing a disservice to your readers who have not traveled there.

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  19. Natalie says:

    I just stumbled across your blog. I was supposed to go to Japan for the first time the day after the earthquake and tsunami. Ever since I have been reading anything and everything about Japan and hope to be able to make that trip some day. I really love your blog!

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    • amblerangel says:

      Wow- you were lucky! I hope you are able to make it back soon- all is fine now except in the northern area where it will be a long healing and rebuilding.

      I’m so glad to hear you’re enjoying the blog! Thanks for reading.

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  20. Gloe says:

    Saw some ATMs ransacked.. Seen it with my own eyes.. Crime was not rampant but it was there ppl.

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  21. bahia says:

    This is a great post. This is always something I find hard to explain to people who haven’t lived in Japan. While there has been some crime due to the earthquake, I think it’s really minimal compared to what you would see in other countries after an event like this. Thanks for sharing your thought.

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  22. Fascinating post. I’ve been wondering about this for quite some time now, ever since I heard somewhere that Japanese people only commit extreme crimes like suicide because of their restrictive laws. I’ve been wondering (and often assuming) that this was the case.

    Do you know if it is? Because I would really like to know.

    PS Great blog. I am fascinated by Japan, and have been reading a fair bit of your blog. It’s really good stuff.

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    • Thanks so much LW2! I don’t think the lack of crime has much to do with the laws- or the punishments. It really is a cultural aversion to being an outcast. Of course there is some crime, however, we all get so lazy living here. I leave my bags all over, don’t worry at all about my purse. Once I accidentally left a Gucci bag in my bike basket when I went in to the grocery store. I was not surprised that it was still there. (I know- it was a dumb thing to do) in terms of suicide, I understand the rate is very high compared to other cultures but don’t know why? Might have to look in to that. Thanks for commenting!

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    • bahia says:

      I lived in Japan for several years and I think the high rate of suicide has less to do about restrictive laws and more to do with the fact that there is very little influence of Christianity or other religions that believe suicide is a sin. To Japanese people it is not a sin in the way that many Western people may see it. During samurai times committing ritual suicide was considered an honorable way to take responsibility for something – should your action have been dishonorable you would be forbidden to commit suicide. While I don’t think the exact same attitude exists there now, I do think that the connotations and historical precedents are very different to the views held here in the USA.

      While Japan does have many restrictive laws, and the police have a great deal of power and control (there is something like at 99% conviction rate of those arrested, and you can he held almost indefinitely before formally arrested – it was only recently that they introduced a trial by jury system for the most heinous crimes) I think that Emily is right that the pressure to not be an outcast or stand out is one of the main reasons there is not much crime in Japan. The main crime that I heard about happening when I was there was organized crime, but not so much individual on individual crime. My Japanese friend told me that if you drop your wallet it is most likely that no one will pick it up, not even to turn it into the police, because they are so afraid that someone might see them and THINK that they were stealing it.

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      • (I can relate to them on that last statement.)

        Sorry, but what I meant by my last comment was not that suicide rates are caused by harsh laws, but because of personal or cultural pressure.

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  23. I hate to burst the everyone’s bubble here, but what you are describing is what the Japanese/ international media LIKE to portray Japan (as having no crime in particular during the tsunami). this simply is not true, while there certainly were not the levels of looting and other petty crimes you might see after a natural disaster in the U.S (very high crime rate nation), people should be aware that was wide-spread looting of stores and house which was only reported by local and independent media sources. This is the same for any negative news about Japan. It is often hidden from public view to maintain this image you all seem to hold.

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    • Absolutely there was some- however – compared to recent examples of looting in western cultures it is still very small in comparison.

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      • kEV says:

        You’re right but I disagree with the “western cultures” part. New Zealand had practically zero looting during their recent earthquake disasters. The same was true in Australia during the recent flooding. In fact, according to newspaper reports (perhaps mostly due to vast differences in population) there were many more cases of looting in Japan last year than both Oceania disasters combined.

        It is important for the world to begin seeing Japan in a more realistic and truthful way, for the benefit of visitors and more importantly, for Japanese themselves who tend to see themselves through rose-tinted glasses (I teach Japanese students).

        Of course, not taking anything away from the fact Japan has many fascinating and admirable aspects, but a balanced view of Japan (or any country) is a healthy view.

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  24. Jonjg says:

    In Japan the shopping malls loan out nice, clean prams: ‘baby cars’ they call them. No ID is needed. In my country (which I shall not name out of shame) people would be loading them into their car boots and driving off with them. Where I come from the first though people have is ‘Now could I nick this?’

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  25. I think countries that are mostly “one race, one nationality” have a unique corporate consciousness of tribe which makes crime unacceptable .

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    • Could be. But I sure like it!

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    • Kev says:

      Crime is unacceptable in any human community, isn’t it? Japan is not a one culture, one race nation, any more than say, France is, though this is how it is often portrayed in the media. Dig a little deeper than pulp media and you will soon realise how multi-cultural and multi-racial Japan really is, and always has been. The reasons for Japan’s low (some would argue dubiously low because of a lack of acceptance in reporting) crime rate is varied and complex but centres around the fearsome control “anti-social groups” (yakuza) have on communities, and the intense culturally-based fear of ostracisation.

      It’s nice to have stereotypes of a country that are positive, and kind, but let’s not fool ourselves into believing them to be factual.

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  26. I would disagree with KEV. “Japan is not a one culture, one race nation, any more than say, France is, though this is how it is often portrayed in the media. ” I don’t think this theory can be so easily dismissed. Certainly Japan is more one cultured than most nations. Take Iceland, Norway , Sweden, Latvia, Estonia to name a few – these are primarily one race/one culture societies. The people have a corporate mentality, a sense of tribalism, a sense of nationalism that binds them with common purpose and common denominators which makes transgressions against the group unacceptable in many possible criminal minds and is a crime deterrent. Crime is not mere crime, it is betrayal. Certainly Japan is more one culture based than here in Miami Dade County which is over 50% foreign born with much of the remaining half first and second generation post immigrant parents.

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    • Carl- you captured this well. Betrayal is exactly the word to use. Crime in itself is even viewed differently.

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    • KEV says:

      Carl. This does make a lot of sense and I can certainly see how the idea of crime as ‘betrayal’ in a more ‘tribal’, small community type society would work. That might also explain why when crimes are committed the criminal in question will often hide their face or try not to be seen. It could also explain why ‘chikan’ (sexual molesting) on trains is so prevalent here – it’s fairly easy not to be detected (it would seem). So I expect we can all agree that human nature is universal in it’s nature and that the desire or urge to commit a crime is no different in Japan than anywhere else, it’s just more difficult to get past the embarrassment and ostracisation of others in the tribe.

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  27. Norm says:

    This is bs. I think you guys are forgetting a number of important things about the culture of crime and how it is rated.

    Japan has just as much crime as the United States, Britain, Russia, Korea, etc. As do all of those countries in relation to to Japan. Crime is reported differently in different areas of the world. You may have not personally experienced crime in your life in Japan, but that is not to say that it does not exist.

    When you say that any other country has higher crime rates compared to Japan, I would say that your summation based on the data you have noticed is correct. However, there are numerous other factors that influence that specific statistic which you are using to determine level of crime.

    You have culture in that respective nation that results in a different level of crime reporting. You have a different view on what is actually crime. You have different laws that represent what is actually crime. You have different values that decide what is wrong or right.

    Your article presents nothing that is factually based. You can go to any corner of the globe and report your personal experiences regarding crime, yet it means nothing. Just because you personally did not experience crime does not mean that crime does not exist.

    Just because you personally didn’t experience the things you have experienced in your home countries doesn’t mean it isn’t happening in your adoptive home. It just means you didn’t experience it, and weren’t in the areas most rampant with those types of criminal exploits.

    Regardless of whether you think one country or another has higher crime, you are getting most of your views based on what you perceive as crime. What you perceive as crime, based on what you were raised to believe as crime in your respective culture does not mean that crime does not exist or is less than other nations. It just means that whether you live in Japan the U.S.,or elsewhere, your view on the topic is different. Anywhere in Europe, Russia, Africa, South America, etc. you will only see reports and incidents of crime that are related specifically to the culture and sensationalization of the media in that specific location.

    Crime is rampant everywhere. You just have to be in the right ( or wrong ) place to experience it. Just because you have had a great time in a specific area doesn’t mean the area is devoid of crime. It simply means that you have a different perspective of what crime really is.

    I have never experienced a violent incident in over 25 years where I am from. Yet still the crime is reported much higher than what I would personally would perceive as crime.

    Once again, crime is everywhere, but it is dictated by your society, your views on crime, and what you feel is right or wrong.

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  28. Mark says:

    I have just read your article and am amazed at how true it is. Just returned from a two week holiday over there and cannot believe how much safer my partner and I felt there than at home in Australia. The people over there were amazing didn’t matter where you went there were litterately hundreds some places close to a thousand people going to the same place. No pushing no shoving nothing but tollerence and respect every where you went. Transport systems were kept immaculate no graffiti or even the slightest carving engraved anywhere. One Aussie we chatted to told us that she lost her mobile one day and set out retracing her steps only to find that somebody had picked it up switched it off silent and placed it on a pillar obviously where she dropped it. In Australia I wouldn’t have even bothered looking for it.The vending machines is what made me chuckle thinking to myself that they would last probably 5 mins at home before they were trashed or tied to the back of some bodies car just for a thrill. Most definitely in ore of what the Japanese people have over there and think a lot of other countries could learn a lot from them.

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    • I hate to say this but your impression is typical of that if people who just visit Japan and not live here. A lot of what you experienced is very service-level and in Japan appearances are everything. Take for example your idea that there was no crime “wave” after the tsunami. I teach English to Japanese police and ministry of defense leaders and they informed me that there was and is a massive increase in the Tohuka earthquake; such that they had to have solders in street corners patrolling day and night and many millions of yen was stolen from people’s jones and businesses. But reporting on this was forbidden. Impressions of a peaceful and safe Japan was deemed more important.

      I think you have to ask yourself why you “felt” safer – this is a fascinating thing to me and I have thought about it often while living in Japan. As stated earlier I personally do not believe there is “less” crime inJaoan than any other modern industrialized nation (except perhaps the US). I think the reason we “feel” safer in Japan is that the people and their culture tend to be submissive and non-confrontational in nature. This is expressed in a lack of direct eye-contact and passive and submissive gestures and body-language. In other countries people tend to project a more confident and independent attitude and so we may feel that at any time I might be approached or that people around me are potetentially more than a threat. I wonder if I am alone in these observations.

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    • Kev says:

      Mark, your experience is no different to any other well-meaning traveller passing through a new country flush with new experiences and, a little naivety. I have done the same myself; the French are so very cultured and affectionate, the Russians so bold and proud, and the Australians so friendly and wonderfully easy-going. And the Japanese so, safe and, polite. Do these firs-time experience represent the truth? Or perhaps just something we want to believe, or, expected to believe? Or, in reality something rather more complex and are first impressions not quite what they seem?

      After 14 years in this country (Japan) I can tell you it is the latter. The Japanese, like any other people are at heart are kind, welcoming and yes, polite. To say that Japan and it’s people are safer and more polite than any other people however is a fallacy. A fallacy that many in Japan, not least their administration, wish to maintain at all costs.

      Allow me to elaborate; I teach high ranking members of the Japanese ministry of defence and police and they informed me, with a smile, that the idea that there was no a “wave” of crime after the Tohoku tsunami pure fabrication. The extent of theft immediately after and many months after was out of control to the extent that had soldiers patrolling street corners throughout the region. Despite this millions of yen has been stolen from private properties and businesses. Do we ever here of this? No, members are warned to say nothing to the press.

      Mark, stay a while here in Japan and you will see plenty of graffiti, very aggressive and even violent and abusive commuters. Perhaps what we could learn from the Japanese is in how to give a good impression, and to present the face of innocence and purity.

      Don’t get me wrong, I love this country, but what you experienced comes more from an ability to keep up impressions than any real objective understanding of the way Japan is. I too feel a sense of safety every time I return to Japan from overseas and I have come to this conclusion; the feeling of security and safeness cannot possibly come from any objective truth. How could it? Are we basing our believes on any factual data or in-depth understanding of the inner workings of a culture? No. It’s is purely a first-impression. Then why do people “feel” safe when they come to Japan? I think it is to do with the fact Japanese by nature present a submissive and non-confrontational behaviour. There is little eye-contact with strangers and body language is meek and lacking in self-confidence and assertiveness. This is why we feel safe. The way people behave makes us believe there is no way I will ever be confronted or challenged. In other countries where people tend to assert themselves more confidently and are more independent we feel there IS the possibility we may be confronted. This, I suggest is how we come to feel safe in Japan.

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      • Well guys- say what you want. Here`s my experience after living here.

        I have traveled all over Japan and here`s what I know.

        My son`s wallet was left on the train full of money. It was in the lost and found- with the money- when he checked.Everyone who lives here has a similar tale.

        I can run in Yoyogi Park in the middle of the night and not worry I`ll be gang raped.

        No one has a gun to shoot me with. Or a sword.

        Children as young as 5 ride the subways by themselves. Every day. If they pull the alarm on the strap, dozens of Japanese people surround them IMMEDIATELY. This is stark contrast to other countries where people just walk by- or watch.

        I left my purse in the basket of my bike when I went grocery shopping and when I came out it was still there.

        I don`t worry about getting mugged or pick pocketed.

        There are only two areas of town to stay away from and the shady areas are well marked.

        If my kids get caught with pot, they go to jail for 30 days and no one has to call me. Then we all get departed. Period. And I know this from experience.

        As for the looting after the tsunami and earthquake- not sure how people up there were supposed to get food. They knew that they too could be stranded like the people in New Orleans at the SuperDome with no food or water coming in from the largest economy in the world. But that is not an every day life occurrence and a poor example to draw on when making a point on crime.

        As a former market research analyst, I know how to work and massage numbers. “Fools figure and figures fool” however, at the end of the day, even given the petty crime that one ocassionally sees here, I AM safer here than in anywhere else in the world.

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      • Kev says:

        All I can say is, rose-coloured glasses seem to fit better on some. You see what you want to see and are happy with that. And I accept that as a legitimate way for some to live – I prefer a more balanced, objective view of the world, but there you go.

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  29. bringreaner says:

    I actually just posted a blog about this too! And as I say in my blog, while a lot of this is right and admirable, there is a lot of unreported sexual assault that makes this claim of no crime a bit misleading.

    If you’re interested – http://greanerpastures.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/no-crime-in-japan/

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  30. Pingback: Safety and Emergencies for Expats in Japan | The friendly ex-pat in Japan!

  31. jtr says:

    nah, they just cover it up well,
    but actually u can see light crimes alot, sexual abuse, harassments. etc

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  32. Hargur says:

    The low crime rate in Japanese society is apprarently a incredibly old aspect of Japanese culture.

    If I well recall, there is this ancient Chinese book called Wei Zhi, an ancient book from the times when the Chinese arrived on the Japaese islands and began to have contact with the Japanese. It records the affairs that took place around the second century AD. Among the many things they wrote about the Japanese and their culture they wrote “there is no theft” and that laws in Japan were very strict. One might as well infer then that this aspect of Japanese culture is much older than when it was recorded by the Chinese envoys and it goes way back to the BC period.

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    • This is very interesting Hargur- thanks for posting it.The whole lack of crime is fascinating to me. It’s so unusual to be able to go absolutely anywhere without worrying about being raped or mugged. In fact, I just read an article about the mountains of tagged lost items sitting in the local Koban stations- cell phones, wallets, stuff that people have dropped or left on trains. Just waiting for their owners. Crazy.

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