Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Japan Gun Laws: Why Shootings are So Rare and How it Compares to The U.S.

The rarity is precisely what makes Abe's death so shocking
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On Friday, July 8th, around noon local time, seismic and shocking news spread throughout Japan and then the world: former prime minister Shinzo Abe had been shot, twice, while giving a campaign speech on behalf of his party. Five hours later, at 5:03 PM, Abe was confirmed dead after a team of over twenty doctors tried to save him. Abe was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history and left the post in 2020 due to health concerns. The accused shooter had a stint in the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (basically the Japanese Navy) and multiple homemade guns in his home.

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It would be a deep mistake to use today’s horrific news as a way to simplify and deify Abe—he held revisionist views on Japan’s colonial and militaristic history, including around comfort women. He was no saint. But the assassination is still a tragedy, and it has shocked a country with incredibly thorough, strict gun laws. A gigantic part of the reason Abe’s assassination is such huge news is because of how incredibly rare both guns and gun killings are in Japan.

Which is also why so many Japanese are terrified and shocked. A New York Times reporter talked to a 37-year-old in Nara, where the shooting took place: “You never hear about gun violence here. On TV, you hear about it all the time in the U.S. but not here. This is so not Japanese.” A 25-year-old woman, after saying the whole thing felt like a Hollywood script, was even more blunt: “I’m shocked by this. The shooting part is confusing. There are guns? In Japan?”

And so, instead of knee-jerk reacting and saying that Japan is “unsafe” (please fucking don’t, you’re embarrassing yourself, America), let’s look into Japan’s gun laws: how they’ve worked wonders, and how even such strict laws failed to stop the assassination.

Japan’s Gun Control Laws, Explained

In Japan, no civilians can have a handgun. They’re outlawed, outright, except for the police. Semi-automatics, then, aren’t even worth discussing. They’re not around. Firearms and swords were outlawed in a 1958 post-war law. But if you’re a hunter, you can earn a license that would allow you to own a shotgun or an air rifle.

But getting that license is an incredibly long process with a lot of steps and a high chance of failure. To get your gun license, you must attend a day-long class and pass both a (rather difficult) written test and a shooting range test with minimum score of 95% accuracy. Additionally, these potential buyers must undergo an ultra-intense background check which, according to CNN, consists of “a review of their criminal record, personal debt, involvement in organized crime and relationships with family and friends.” Reportedly, the police will actually knock on aforementioned family and friend’s doors and chat with them about the potential buyer. And they have to pass a mental health evaluation and a drug test. Oh, and they have to make your case directly to the police as to why they want a gun and allow them to check their personal gun storage. If they pass all of that, they can buy a gun. Which, remember, is a shotgun or an air rifle. Hunting guns.

In short, as Action on Armed Violence director Iain Overton told NBC News, “Japan has some of the strictest gun laws in the world and has a long history of such — it was the first country in the world to instigate a form of gun law via a reward scheme for information leading to the capturing of illicit guns in the 17th century.” In 2019, Japan, a country of 127 million people, had the lowest guns of guns per capita than any other developed country. That “per capita” number in 2020 was 0.3 guns per 100 people. (Side note: South Korea is even lower, with 0.16 guns.)

Does Japan Have Gun Violence?

Gun violence in Japan is so uncommon, it’s virtually non-existent. In 2021, there were 10 shooting incidents in Japan (not including suicides or accidents), which resulted in one death and four wounded. In 2018, nine people in Japan died via gun violence—and eight of those were considered suicides or accidents. Although this might come off as something from a video game or anime, these rare shootings, and illegal guns in general, are usually associated with the yakuza, an underground criminal network which still exists.

There have been a few tragic mass killings in Japan in recent years, sadly. But they typically don’t involve guns. For instance, anime fans might remember the tragic arson attack on Kyoto Animation Studio in 2019, which left 33 dead.

Still, gun violence is so, so rare in Japan that Iain Overton summed up the reaction to Abe’s assassination as much: “This is something that happens in other countries — not here.”

How Japan’s Low Gun Death Rate Compares to the U.S.

This is about to get dark. Remember how I told you Japan has 0.3 guns per 100 people? In the US, that number is 120.48 guns per 100 people. Literally more guns than people. The nine gun deaths in Japan in 2018? There were 39,740 in the US in that same year—24,432 by suicide and 13,958 by homicide. The one non-suicide gun death in Japan in 2021? In the US, there were at least 20,726.

Abe’s assassination is terrifying. It will likely cause the Japanese government to look into ways to curb the construction of improvised firearms, or “zip guns,” which was the kind of made-at-home weapon used by the killer. Zip guns are reportedly easy to construct, and their parts are easy to find.

But please, spare me the finger pointing and the “SEE, gun laws don’t work!” explosions. We have our own incredibly deep gun problems in the US. Look at those comparative numbers. Clearly, the US’s problem is the number of guns. Wanton mass shootings are now just a weekly occurrence. It is still better to look at Japan as a model, not a scapegoat. All while allowing them the space to process this tragedy.

Image credit: Creative Commons

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Kirsten Carey
Kirsten (she/her) is a contributing writer at the Mary Sue specializing in anime and gaming. In the last decade, she's also written for Channel Frederator (and its offshoots), Screen Rant, and more. In the other half of her professional life, she's also a musician, which includes leading a very weird rock band named Throwaway. When not talking about One Piece or The Legend of Zelda, she's talking about her cats, Momo and Jimbei.