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In Japan, the crime rate also rises
By J Sean Curtin

Once Japan was among the safest countries in the world for its own citizens, travelers and business people. Now, however, the once-cherished sense of personal safety appears antiquated, and national security has been supplanted by deep anxiety about crime and global terrorism.

At a time of record-low public confidence in Japan's scandal-ridden police service, the straight-talking Iwao Uruma has become the nation's new top cop. Uruma, 59, takes up the unenviable post of commissioner general of the National Police Agency (NPA) just as the force is facing unprecedented media criticism for high crime rates and a series of debilitating scandals.

Over the past decade, Japan's image as one of the "safest countries in the world" has undergone a disturbing transformation and downgrading. The once-marginal crime rate has jumped an astronomical 150%. Public confidence in the police has plummeted to below 50%, an all-time low. At the same time, a series of high-profile police scandals has rocked public trust and revealed serious flaws in the way the country's law-enforcement system works.

In his first press conference, a confident-sounding Uruma was frank about the scale of the challenge ahead of him and his 240,000 NPA officers. He declared to the nation his clear-cut objective: "I want to restore public trust in the police."

Despite his evident determination, Commissioner Uruma's immediate chances of success do not look promising. Indeed, the NPA is likely to have to fight a long, hard battle before it can even hope to win back public support or regain its former luster.

Opinion surveys show that many Japanese feel that their police are simply incapable of dealing with the current upsurge in crime and the increasing threat of international terrorism creeping ever closer to Japan.

The NPA recently announced a new policy document outlining tough new anti-terrorism measures designed to allay public fears. However, many question the police's ability to deal with international terrorist if they cannot adequately handle domestic crime.

One distraught victim of a street crime told Asia Times Online, "Today the police are totally unable to deal with the crime wave and we no longer trust them. So many people have been traumatized by crime or are living in fear of it that it is impossible to have any confidence."

Confirming this sentiment, a government survey released last month showed that 55.9% of people think Japan is "not safe", while only 39.1% believe it is. Even Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been forced to concede, "We cannot say Japan is the world's safest country anymore."

Lack of confidence in Japan's police
Various international studies have revealed that the Japanese police are rated much lower by the public than their counterparts in other advanced industrial countries. Dr Tom Ellis, a senior lecturer at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies at Portsmouth University in England, told Asia Times Online, "Confidence in and satisfaction with the Japanese police is relatively low." In the 2000 International Crime Victims Survey (ICVS), which was carried out in 12 developed nations including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Finland and Poland, Japanese public confidence and satisfaction were both ranked within the bottom four nations, he said.

An academic researcher, speaking on condition of anonymity, is a typical victim of the current crime wave, and he was deeply dissatisfied with his treatment by the Japanese police. In a nervous voice, he recounted his ordeal: "I had my wallet stolen with all my credit cards inside. The thief also got my PIN [personal identification] number and so was able to completely empty my bank account of a substantial amount of money."

After a pause he continued, "The police had a photo of the thief from the ATM [automated teller machine] security camera, but they were totally uninterested in pursuing him. They told me in an irritated manner that there was a lot of this kind of crime happening. They treated me like a nuisance. I felt like I was interrupting their day and they virtually ignored me. I suffered a deep trauma from this experience for months afterwards."

Many people, such as office worker Kazue Sakamoto, say that the police's failure to tackle pretty crime vigorously is an important factor behind the current explosion in criminal activity. Ms Sakamoto said, "The police have closed their eyes to pretty crime and this has encouraged Japanese and foreign criminals to commit more crimes as they know they will get away with it."

Crime wave overwhelms Japan
Although by international standards Japanese crime levels are still relatively low, the massive 150% upsurge in the past 10 years has created a real sense of crisis. Such a huge increase in a relatively short time has overwhelmed the system, leaving both the victims and the police unable to cope.

While crime figures for 2003 and preliminary data for 2004 both indicate moderate decreases in the level of crime, rates are still substantially higher than a decade ago. Furthermore, until 2003, the country experienced seven successive years of record-high crime rates. For example, between 1998 and 2002, robbery increased 104%, car theft 75%, and burglary 42%.

Because people are experiencing a level of crime that is totally alien, it is generating a deep sense of fear and uncertainty.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, while most industrially advanced nations experienced dramatic increases in crime, Japan registered significant reductions. In fact, it only recorded a fraction of the levels seen in most other countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

However, during the 1990s, the script changed dramatically. While nearly all OECD countries recorded declines in criminality, in Japan the rates soared. This gave the country one of the most rapid increases in crime levels ever witnessed among the OECD countries.

Traditional policing methods just could not cope and there were insufficient victim-support networks to help the rapidly growing number of crime victims. While in some respects Japan is merely catching up with other industrial countries, the pace is more than it can handle.

Explaining the rise in crime
The sharp increase in crime has generated numerous theories. Criminologists have tended to identify a complex web of causes stemming, among other things, from the prolonged economic recession, changing social patterns and inadequate policing structures.

On the other hand, many Japanese lawmakers as well as senior police officers have pinned the blame for the crime wave on delinquent youths and foreign criminals, labeling these two groups "the twin causes of rising crime".

Although detailed analysis of the crime statistics disproves the youth-and-foreigners notion, the media have tended to side with lawmakers who have promoted this idea. Large swaths of public opinion believe that these two groups - youth and foreigners - are responsible for most crimes, even though they only comprise small groups in the overall crime figures.

While the upswing in crime is one of the primary reasons for a sense of deep dissatisfaction with the police, the force's own conduct is another. The Japanese police have been plagued by various scandals for more than a decade, but during 2004 their troubles have reached crisis point, with a new and devastating scandal being uncovered almost every month.

The crisis began in early February when a former Hokkaido chief superintendent, Koji Harada, confessed that the prefectural police had systematically misappropriated public money into a slush fund by fabricating criminal cases and inventing payments to informants. Harada urged the Hokkaido police force to admit its wrongdoing and tackle the problem. He told a press conference, "I think this is the last chance for the prefectural police to reform [themselves]. I hope one day officers in the front lines of police activities can again work with their heads held high."

His public comments marked the first time ever that an executive police officer had exposed this kind of corruption in Japan. The case sent shock waves throughout the NPA, and other similar scandals were quickly uncovered in the Kyoto, Shizuoka and Fukuoka prefectural police forces. These cases added to earlier slush-fund disclosures in several other regions including Tokyo. Public dissatisfaction with the police reached new heights.

Noriaki Kawamura, deputy director of the Police Policy Research Center at the National Police Academy of Japan, says the NPA now has put these kinds of scandals behind it. He told Asia Times Online, "Some prefectural police forces got caught up in bad accounting practices. Now I think this issue has been cleared up and you will not find such misconduct." He optimistically added, "So now these problems have been sorted out and I think that today people trust the police and they will in the future."

Last month the NPA tried to improve its tarnished image by highlighting an increase in the ratio of solved to unsolved crimes during 2003. However, almost immediately an embarrassing scandal broke, involving the falsification of police crime-clearance rates. This revelation derailed the NPA's confidence-boosting effort.

Unconvincing words of calm
The media revealed that Hyogo Prefectural Police had falsified hundreds of investigation documents over two years, in an apparent attempt to enhance performance ratings by increasing crime-clearance rates. Some officers even fabricated reports on incidents that never even took place. The episode cast a serious shadow over the validity of police claims that crime rates were dropping.

Nevertheless, deputy director Kawamura believes that the NPA figures are highly reliable and adhere to an international standard. He is adamant that crime clearance rates are actually increasing.

He told Asia Times Online, "We have an international auditor division, so we have checked our data and can compare the performance of our officers [with those in other countries]. I think the system works very well, but sometimes, as in the Hyogo case, there are problems." As further proof of the figures' reliability, he added, "If an officer does something wrong, I think the media discover this quite easily. So I think the police statistics are very reliable."

Dr Tom Ellis of the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies at Portsmouth University points out that police scandals are also common in other countries and that the current problems of the Japanese police should be put into context. "In the UK, the police were reformed in the '60s as a result of corruption scandals. The West Midlands Serious Crime Squad was disbanded as a result of a series of scandals in the '70s and '80s, and [more recently] police inaction over the [high-profile, racially motivated] murder of Stephen Lawrence in April 1993 led to large-scale reform to ensure that police competence was improved."

However, these kinds of reassurances are unlikely to convince a skeptical Japanese public, making Commissioner Uruma's task much harder. In fact, until crime rates drastically drop and the police put their own house in order, Japan is likely to remain a nation where confidence in the police is exceptionally low and the commissioner's goal of restoring public trust a distant dream.

J Sean Curtin is a GLOCOM fellow at the Tokyo-based Japanese Institute of Global Communications.

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