Attitudes towards the Police in Contemporary Japan - Part One: Public Confidence in Japan's Police at Record Low
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
This new social trends series examines changing public attitudes towards the police in contemporary Japan. Despite having a relatively low crime rate, the Japanese police force currently has one of the lowest public confidence ratings in the industrialized world. A decade ago, the country was considered one of the safest in the world for its own citizens, travelers and business people. However, today opinion polls indicate that the once-cherished sense of personal safety has evaporated, and national security has been supplanted by deep anxiety about crime and global terrorism. The articles and interviews in this series examine the underlying issues behind this radical shift in public sentiment.
Japan's crime up by 150 percent over past decade
At a time of record low public confidence in Japan's scandal-ridden police service, the straight-talking Mr. Iwao Uruma has become the nation's new top cop. He takes up the unenviable post of Commissioner General of the National Police Agency (NPA) just as the force is facing unprecedented levels of media criticism for high crime rates and a series of debilitating scandals. The 59-year old Uruma began work on Friday 13 August 2004.
Over the past decade, Japan's image as one of the "safest countries in the world" has undergone a disturbing transformation. The once marginal crime rate has jumped an astronomical 150 percent. Public confidence in the police has drastically plummeted to below 50 percent, representing a near 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 surprisingly frank about the scale of the challenge lying ahead of him and his 240,000 NPA officers. In a forthright manner, 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 battered fortunes.
Opinion surveys show that many ordinary Japanese feel their police are simply incapable of dealing with the current upsurge in crime and the growing threat of international terrorism which is creeping ever closer to Japan. The once cherished sense of national safety has been replaced by deep anxiety about crime and global terrorism.
The NPA recently announced a new policy document outlining tough new antiterrorism measures design 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 observed, "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 in July 2004 showed that 55.9 percent of people think Japan is "not safe," while only 39.1 percent believe it is. Even Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been forced to concede, "We cannot say Japan is the world's safest country any more."
Lack of confidence in Japanese police
Various international studies have revealed that the Japanese police are rated much lower by the public than their counterparts in other industrially advanced countries. Dr. Tom Ellis, a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies at Portsmouth University, comments, "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 USA, UK, France, Finland and Poland, Japanese public confidence and satisfaction were both ranked within the bottom four nations."
Akira, not his real name, is a typical victim of the current crime wave. He was deeply dissatisfied with the way the Japanese police treated him. In a low voice, he recounts his ordeal, "I had my wallet stolen with all my credit cards inside. The thief also got my pin number and so was able to completely empty my bank account of a substantial amount of money."
After a pause he continues, "The police had a photo of the thief from the ATM 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 ordinary people, like office worker Kazue Sakamoto, feel that the police's failure to vigorously tackle pretty crime is an important factor behind the current explosion in criminal activity. Ms. Sakamoto says, "The police have closed their eyes to pretty crime and this has encourage Japanese and foreign criminals to commit more crimes as they know they will get away with it."
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
New Religious Cults in Japan: Part Three - Asahara Verdict Highlights Police Failures
Suicide in Japan: Part Five - Incorrectly Recorded Suicides
(Some parts of this article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 28 August 2004, http://www.atimes.com, and all those sections are republished with permission. Copyright of these sections belongs to Asia Times Online Ltd.)