As crime dries up, the police are becoming more creative, writes David McNeill

Every week thousands of readers log onto Tokyo Reporter, an English-language website that chronicles vice and crime in Japan, to wallow brieflyin the nation’s lurid undertow.

The site’s stock-in-trade is tales of sex, murder and scandal, often drawn from the pages of Japan’s tabloid press. Among August’s offerings was a story about a Tokyo man arrested for leaving the dismembered corpse of his father in a bathtub, and a report on a crackdown on yakuza protection rackets in the glitzy shopping district of Ginza.

To the uninitiated reader, Japan’s cluttered streets may look awash in criminals, but little could be further from the truth. Crime rates have been falling for 13 years; in the first six months of 2017 they plunged by 7.7 per cent to set a new postwar low. The murder rate of 0.3 per 100,000 people is among the lowest in the world (in America, where violent crime is rising at its fastest pace since the 1970s, it is over 5). Guncrimes are almost unheard of – a single gun fatality was recorded for the whole of 2015.

Even yakuza gangsters, once a fearsome criminal force, have been weakened by tougher laws, and demography. Yakuza membership (full gang members carry business cards, and register with the police) has steadily fallen to an all-time low. This striking trend is only mildly disrupted by the one rising criminal fraternity: the elderly.

Senior citizens now account for about 20 per cent of arrests and detentions. As the population ages, the over-65s commit nearly four times more crimes than they did two decades ago. One result is that Japan’s jails are filling up with the infirm: more inmates need help with walking, bathing and even using the toilet. The government recently allocated a budget to send care workers to about half of the nation’s prisons.

Japan’s murder rate of 0.3 per 100,000 people is among the lowest in the world

Yet, far from being pensioned off, the police are growing in numbers. Beat cops, known colloquially as omawari-san (Mr Walk-arounds) are a fixture in most neighbourhoods. Japan has over 15,000 more police personnel than it had a decade ago, when crime rates were far higher. The density of officers per population is particularly marked in Tokyo, home to the world’s biggest metropolitan police force – much larger than the one protecting the supposedly crime-ridden New York City.

In practice, this means plenty of police attention when something goes wrong. Bicycle theft in Japan is investigated seriously. Petty drugs offences are treated with forensic rigour. A small army of detectives was assigned last year to arrest a group of people who had been smoking pot in the countryside. One woman recalls five officers crowding into her cramped apartment after she reported her underwear being swiped from a clothesline.

As the police run out of things to do, however, they are becoming more inventive about what constitutes a crime, according to Kanako Takayama, a professor of criminal law at Kyoto University. In one recent case, she said, they arrested a group of people who had shared the fees for a rented car, because they judged it was an illegal taxi. Some prefectures have begun prosecuting people who ride their bicycles through red traffic lights.

Critics who fret about over-enthusiastic police cite a week-long stakeout last year in Kyushu, south-west Japan. Five officers watched over a case of beer in an unlocked car outside a supermarket in Kagoshima, scene of a series of robberies from unlocked vehicles, before pouncing on the hapless middle-aged man who eventually helped himself. A judge ruined all that hard work in April when he dismissed the case, which he called an unnecessary and expensive sting operation.

Yakuza gangsters, once a fearsome criminal force in Japan, have been weakened by tougher laws
Yakuza gangsters, once a fearsome criminal force in Japan, have been weakened by tougher laws

In another incident reported by the liberal Asahi newspaper, police in rural Gifu Prefecture spied on local citizens who opposed a wind power project, then repeatedly called executives from the power company in 2013 and 2014 with detailed reports on the activists, including ages, academic background and medical records.A police official questioned in the upper house of the Diet in 2015 said surveying citizen activists was a standard feature of police operations. The activists are suing the police.

Oddly, the police increasingly struggle to solve crimes. The rate of detection for total offences fell to a post-war low of less than 30 percent in 2013, which suggests that while crimes happen increasingly rarely, the police are not very good at solving them. The annual White Paper published by the National Police Agency cites weakening communities ties as well as widespread use of mobile phones, the internet and other technological advances as factors for falling detection rates. Confessions, often made during duress, form the basis of nearly 90 per cent of criminal prosecutions. The reason why Japan looks so good is that people police themselves, says Yoshihiro Yasuda, a campaigning lawyer.

Even critics of the country’s justice system accept that it gets a lot right. Rates of recidivism are low. A great deal of effort is made to keep young offenders out of the prison system; police work with parents to keep the under-20s on the straight and narrow. Adults are incarcerated at a far lower rate than in most developed countries –45 per 100,000 – compared with 146 in Britain and 666 in the United States.

Precisely because it is so safe, however, some fear the system is ripe for abuse. With little else to do, police may start finding new things to enforce, says Colin Jones, a legal expert at Doshisha University. There are signs they are already doing so. In 2015, a man was arrested for scribbling Adolf Hitler mustaches on posters of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Takayama says detectives have started appearing without permission on campuses, to monitor ‘troublesome’ students. Leaked internal police documents in 2010 described intensive surveillance of Tokyo’s largely trouble-free Muslim community. A ‘mosque squad’ made up of dozens of officers was set up to monitor Muslims and cultivate informants.

One reason why police are going after cyclists may be to make up for the steady fall in driving offences, which keep many of them in work. (Fines can be avoided by cyclists receiving remedial training at certified driving schools – staffed by retired cops).Some of this attention may arguably be benign. Japan has seen a near doubling in reported cases of domestic child abuse since 2010, despite the declining birthrate, a sign that the state is increasingly intervening in an area it had previously neglected: the family.

Yet idle cops could be a public menace. This year the government gave the police even more powers, with a new ‘conspiracy’ law that allows them to investigate and arrest people who plan to commit crimes. A decade ago, recalls Doshisha University’s Jones, police in Hokkaido, in Japan’s sparsely populated north, conspired with yakuza gangsters to smuggle guns into the country, so they could meet quotas for finding guns. Whereas in some parts of the world you can never find a policeman when you need one, in Japan, he says, too many could quickly make life unbearable.

Dr David McNeill writes for The Economist, The Irish Times and other international publications, and is co-author of Strong in the Rain, survivors’ stories from Japan’s 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. He teaches media and politics at Sophia University in Tokyo. Previously he taught at Liverpool John Moores University

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