Guns in Japan

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

The only type of firearm which a Japanese citizen may even contemplate acquiring is a shotgun.  Civilians can never own handguns.  Small caliber rifles were once legal, but in 1971, the Government forbade all transfers of rifles.  Upon the death of a license-holder, the heir must turn the license back over to the Government.  Without a license, a person may not even hold a gun in his or her hands.  In 2008, there were 11 reported homicides using firearms.  Even without firearms, Japan is a remarkably safe nation.  In the 1990’s, Japan's robbery rate was 1.4 per 100,000 inhabitants;  the American rate was 220.9.  Armed robbery and murder are both so rare that they usually make the national news, regardless of where they occur.  People walk anywhere in Japan at night, and carry large sums of cash. 

According to the Japanese Gun Owners Association there are approximately 150,000 licensed gun owners in Japan.  To get a gun in Japan, first, you have to attend an all-day class and pass a written test, which are held only once per month. You also must take and pass a shooting range class. At a hospital you must submit to a mental test and drug test to affirmatively prove mental fitness. Finally, pass a rigorous background check for any criminal record or association with criminal or extremist groups. You must provide the police with documentation on the specific location of the gun in your home, as well as the ammunition, both of which must be locked and stored separately.  The police must inspect the gun once per year and you must re-take the class and exam every three years.


Guns arrived in Japan along with the first trading ships from Portugal in 1542 or 1543.  The Arabs, the Indians, and the Chinese had all acquired firearms long before the Japanese. But only the Japanese mastered large-scale domestic manufacture.  They invented a device to make matchlocks fire in the rain (the Europeans never figured out how to do this), refined the matchlock trigger and spring, developed a serial firing technique, and increased the matchlock's caliber.  By 1560, only 17 years after being introduced in Japan, armies were using firearms effectively in large battles.  However, on August 29, 1588, Toyotomi Hidéyoshi announced 'the Sword Hunt' (taiko no katanagari) and banned possession of swords and firearms by the non-noble classes.  In 1607, the Tokugawa Shogunate took complete control of the firearms industry and quickly ground it to a halt. 

The historian Noel Perrin offers five reasons why Japan was able to renounce the gun while Europe was not, despite the fierce resistance to guns by the European aristocracy. First, the Samurai warrior nobility, who hated guns, amounted to 6-10 per cent of the population, unlike in Europe, where the noble class never exceeded 1 per cent. The nobility simply counted for more in Japan.  Second, Japan was so hard to invade, and the Japanese were such formidable fighters, that swords and bows sufficed for national defense. Invasions were unlikely in any case. One hundred miles separate Japan from Korea; 500 divide Japan and China. Third, writes Perrin, swords were what the Japanese truly valued. Guns depreciated the importance of swords, so a policy of protecting swords by eliminating guns was bound to be popular, at least with the classes who carried swords. Hailed as 'the soul of the samurai', the sword was the physical embodiment of aristocratic honor and of the soul itself.  When gun manufacture was still legal, and the Government decided to honor the four leading gunsmiths, it gave them swords. The cult of the sword persisted into the Second World War, when Japanese officers lugged traditional, cumbersome swords into Southeast Asian jungles. Even today, the sword is a common source of Japanese metaphor. Self-indulgent behavior is called 'the rust of my body', identifying one's body with a sword. The fourth reason Perrin cites for the success in elimination of guns was a general reaction against outside influences, particularly Christianity. Although the firearms made in Japan were the world's best, they remained a symbol of Western technology.  Finally, writes Perrin, in a society where aesthetics were prized, swords were valued because they were graceful to use in combat

Today, illegal guns are usually smuggled from overseas (especially from the Philippines and the United States) by organized crime gangs.  In practice, when looking for illegal guns, the police routinely search at will. They ask suspicious characters to show them what is in their purse or sack.  In the rare cases where a policeman's search (for a gun or any other contraband) is ruled illegal, it hardly matters; the Japanese courts permit the use of illegally seized evidence.  There is no right to bear arms in Japan. In practical terms, there is no right to privacy against police searches. 

81 per cent of sentences for illegal firearm or sword possession are imprisonment for a year or more.  The confession rate is 95 per cent.  After the arrest, a suspect may be detained without bail for up to 28 days before the prosecutor brings the suspect before a judge.  Even after the 28 day period is completed, detention in a Japanese police station may continue on a variety of pretexts, such as preventing the defendant from destroying evidence. Re-arrest on another charge, bekken taihö, is a common police tactic for starting the suspect on another 28 day interrogation process. 'Re-arrest' may occur while the suspect is still being held at the police station on the first charge. Some defendants may be held for several months without ever being brought before a judge.  Courts approve 99.5 per cent of prosecutors' requests for detentions. 

Criminal defense lawyers are the only people allowed to visit a suspect in custody, and those meetings are strictly limited. In the months while a suspect is held prisoner, the defense counsel may see his or her client for one to five meetings lasting about 15 minutes each. Even that access will be denied if it hampers the police investigation. While under detention, suspects can be interrogated 12 hours a day, allowed to bathe only every fifth day, and may be prohibited from standing up, lying down, or leaning against the wall of their jail cells