Crime and Punishment in Japan: From Re-integrative Shaming to Popular Punitivism (Jpn/UK)

Crime and Punishment in Japan: From Re-integrative Shaming to Popular

By Thomas Ellis & Koichi HAMAI

In the late 1990s, press coverage of police scandals in Japan provoked
policy reactions so that more ‘trivial’ offences were reported, and
overall crime figures rocketed. The resulting ‘myth of the collapse of
secure society’ appears, in turn, to have contributed to increasingly
punitive public views about offenders and sentencing in Japan.

Since the Second World War, Japan has avoided the correlation between
rising crime and increased affluence that has afflicted other
comparable advanced democratic economies. This has prompted other
countries to investigate to famous koban ‘community policing’
principle and to look at notions of re-integrative shaming, which were
seen as prevalent in dealing with Japanese offenders. However, since
the late 1990s, the Japanese press and public have lost confidence in
their public safety and the effectiveness of the criminal justice
system. Public opinion surveys show that fear of crime among the
Japanese has risen. This perceived rise in crime, which is reflected
in a 44% increase in recorded crime between 1995 and 2004, is
generally associated in the Japanese press with the economic slump
during this period, and a subsequent collapse of traditional community-
based society. A major watershed was the way in which police
investigative competence was questioned by the press at the end of the
1990s, and the early 2000s, also saw a heavy press focus on a rising
tide of youth violence and mass killing sprees.

Figure 1. Public Opinion: 'the crime situation
is worsening.' Source: Cabinet Office, 2004.

In 2001 the then Japanese Prime Minister, Koizumi Junichiro, was moved
to state, [1]

‘…in order to regain the trust of the people that ‘Japan is the safest
nation on the planet’, the government is enhancing its measures to
prevent violent crimes.’

And in his General Policy Speech to the 161st Session of the Diet on
October 12, 2004, Koizumi said;

‘we must revive "Japan, the safest county in the world" through
enhancing anti-crime measures……….We will review the Penal Code to
strengthen sentences for malicious crimes such as murder and criminal
assault. ‘

A key question now for both academics and for Japanese politicians is
whether Japan’s status as a low crime country is a myth or whether
Japan has simply taken longer to conform to the almost law-like link
between increasing development and increasing crime as observed in
most other developed countries.

A man wielding a knife killed at least eight pupils in a
rampage at their school in western Japan, June 2001.

The evidence we have compiled indicates that the Japanese press, like
the press in most comparable countries, is presenting a partial and
inaccurate picture of current crime trends, but that the moral panic
created by such coverage has had a very real effect not only on public
perceptions but also on criminal justice policy and practice. Moral
panics occur when societal change is rapid and existing social and
economic structures appear threatened, as in Japan throughout the

While direct causality is difficult to ‘prove’ on such a broad scale,
we present evidence and analysis to suggest the following train of
events, as represented in the figure below.

Figure 2. Deviancy amplification/signification spiral in Japan

The current ‘panic’ has been created by the same processes documented
in other countries, in that taken-for-granted existing practices are
exposed as a result of sudden and unusual degrees of scrutiny, rather
than changes in the practices themselves. In Japan, the impact of the
press focus on police competency scandals, and ultimately about
effectiveness of the criminal justice system, started a train of
events that has led to a severe mismatch between perceptions and
actual levels of risk of victimization. At under 2 million offences
for a population of over 120 million, Japan still has a comparatively
low crime rate, and victim surveys, which also capture unreported and
unrecorded crimes, tell the same story.

The key police scandals that started the train of events discussed
here were the Okegawa stalker murder in 1999 and the Tochigi lynch
murder in 2000. In both cases, victims were killed mainly because of
police inaction, evidencing the downside of kaiketsu or ‘informal
resolution’, so favoured in western accounts of re-integrative
justice. In reaction to sustained media coverage and criticism, the
National Police Agency (NPA) showed a new willingness to accept their
responsibility and even lack of competence. The NPA developed a new
policy and issued instructions to prevent similar future events by
requiring officers to accept and investigate all public reports of
offences. This resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of
‘incidents’ recorded at police consultation desks, as Figure 2.

Figure 3. Number of Incidents Reported to and Recorded by the Police,
1992-2003. Source: The White Paper on Police, 2004.

However, rather than the rise in relatively trivial crimes, the press
focused on homicide and violent crime, which are the types of stories
with high ‘news value in Japan and elsewhere. The general rise in
recorded crime was therefore linked to a higher likelihood of becoming
a victim of specific serious crimes, and a lower chance of the crime
being investigated and solved. The 2002 White Paper does indeed show
the number of all reported violent crimes rose by just under 80%
between 1991 and 2001. However, a key factor here is that 90% of these
resulted in only minor injuries. For instance, most of the increase in
reported violent crime was due to the enormous increase in the
reporting of less serious violent crimes, encouraged by the NPA’s new
policy, the impact of which Figure 3 demonstrates.

Figure 4. Trends in series and minor injuries as a result of
crime in Japan, 1991-2002. Source: White Paper on Crime, 2003.

The NPA policy shift since 2000, toward encouraging greater reporting
of minor offences has produced a large increase in overall recorded
violent crimes that are virtually unsolvable and this has devastated
the police clear up rate. In reality, International Crime Victims
Surveys show that the risk of becoming a victim (including of violent
crime) between 2000 and 2004 was generally reduced, but the proportion
reported to and recorded by the police increased. These surveys also
show that Japan has the lowest victimization rates for robbery, sexual
assault and assault with force. Further, the homicide rate, which is
one of the most reliable crime statistics, shows a downward trend
since the 1980s, and the clear up rate has remained consistently above
90%. However, like the public elsewhere, the Japanese public rely more
on media sources for opinions on crime than they do on objective
sources. As Figure 4. shows, there is no clear relationship between
the trends in homicide rates and the number of press articles relating
to them, again supporting a notion of moral panic.

Figure 5 Trends of recorded murders and articles on "heinous crimes
and murders"
and crime victims. Source: IDNA Data Base White Paper on Crime. Note:
All figures are
re-calculated as (the number of each year/the number of 1985)x100.

As with most comparable nations, the Japanese public’s fear of crime
is not in proportion to the likelihood of being victimized. What is
different is the scale of this mismatch. While Japan has one of the
lowest victimization rates, the International Crime Victim Surveys
(ICVS) indicate that it has among the highest levels of fear of crime.
The Japanese moral panic about crime has been extremely durable in the
new millennium. Some now claim that the panic perspective has become
institutionalized in Japan and that there has been collapse of the pre-
existing psychological boundary dividing experience of the ordinary
personal world where crime is rare, and another hyper-real world where
crime is common.

To understand the public perception, in addition to press coverage and
representations of crime, it is also important to understand the
contribution of the victim support movement in Japan. As was the case
in most other developed countries, victims of crime were relatively
neglected in the Japanese criminal justice system until relatively
recently, but in 1996, the National Police Agency issued guidelines on
how to deal with victims properly and to avoid secondary victimization
by police inaction. Since then, the victim support movement, in both
private and public sectors has grown very rapidly and the press is now
far more interested in representing the victim perspective in print.
As a result, victims and/or bereaved family members are far more
visible to the public.

The combined press and victims movement, rather than objective
evidence, has had a direct impact on government. Two pieces of
legislation were enacted on 1 December 2004, one to enhance treatment
of victims of crime and the other to toughen punishment for offenders.
The former ‘recognizes’ that the risk of becoming a victim is now
greater for ordinary Japanese citizens, while the latter increased
sentence length for violent crimes, and is explicit both in its belief
that this will provide greater deterrence and in recognising the
demands of victims. The ‘Iron Quadrangle’ between: the media; victims
and advocates; National Police Agency and politicians; and experts
(lawyers and psychiatrists), has institutionalized the enduring
concern about crime and the idea that Japanese society is now in
constant danger. It is certainly clear, from the ICVSs, that the
Japanese public believe that crime is increasing rapidly, and that
this has had led to more punitive attitudes to sentencing. Far form
having a re-integrative perspective, they were the most likely choose
custody as a way of reducing youth crime and second only to the USA in
asking for custodial sentences for burglars.

In sum, the evidence shows that Japan still has a low crime rate, and
an especially low rate for violent crime. However, the Japanese public
has low confidence in its safety, a high level of fear of crime, and a
very punitive attitude toward offenders. The high level of media focus
on rising recorded crime and a campaign for victims’ rights have
contributed to this rise in public punitiveness.

New legislation has not only imposed more severe punishment on
offenders, but also widened the criminal justice net. A greater
proportion of people who used to be diverted from the formal criminal
justice process, are now included in the formal process, and a greater
proportion of offenders who used to be tried in summary courts and
sentenced to fines, are now dealt with by formal trial and sentenced
to prison. Criminal justice agencies, especially the police and the
public prosecutor’s office have gradually lost their discretion in
using informal procedures due to the demands from victims.

Western scholars have generally focused on the role of apology and
forgiveness in everyday life and in criminal justice in Japan.
However, the questions posed above beg further research into whether
Japan has started to resemble other developed countries, such as the
US and UK, in moving towards popular punitivism, or whether, at least
to some extent, the Japanese public were always more punitive than
they were perceived to be.

Thomas Ellis is a Principal Lecturer in the Institute of Criminal
Justice Studies, University of Portsmouth.. Ellis’s email address is

Koichi Hamai is a professor in the Corrections and Rehabilitation
Research Center, Ryukoku University. Hamai’s email address is

The full version of this article was published in International
Journal of the Sociology of Law (2006, Vol. 34 (3) pp.157-178.) Posted
on Japan Focus on January 29, 2007.

The third Anglo-Japanese symposium on Criminal Justice and Corrections
will take place on 3 & 4 March, 2007, Kyoto, Japan. The Topic for the
symposium is: Policing, Prosecutions and Sentencing.

If you wish to attend the symposium, please inform Koichi Hamai as
soon as possible at khamai@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx


1. Addressing the 6th crime Victim Support forum, 19th November 2001.


History repeats itself.


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