What 21st century Americans can learn from Tokugawa-era Japan on guns

19th century Edo-period painting of Kiso Kaido highway with a view of Mt. Fuji.
19th century Edo-period painting of Kiso Kaido highway with a view of Mt. Fuji.

The horrific massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, early Sunday morning has, not unpredictably, set off a new round of calls for more stringent gun control, especially on the American left.USflagJapan

As Chris Murphy, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, held a filibuster on the floor of the US Senate Wednesday and Thursday to demand that Senate Republicans agree to hold a vote on gun control, the one measure that both sides seems even potentially likely to agree is a bill to deny (or delay) gun purchases to individuals on the national ‘terrorist watch list.’

Even that bill is controversial. On both the left and the right, critics rightly argue that the terrorist watch list and the related ‘no fly list’ are compiled in a way that violates basic due process. To use these as a proxy to restrict additional rights, such as 2nd amendment freedoms, only magnifies the due process problem with these secret lists. It’s hard to imagine that the US Supreme Court would uphold as fully constitutional a new law that ties gun restrictions to the terrorist watch/no fly lists, at least in their current forms. Imagine, too, what could happen if a president Donald Trump decided to list all of his domestic political opponents on a ‘watch list.’

But put that aside for a moment. Imagine a world where Republicans and the National Rifle Association agreed, for instance, to re-introduce the ‘assault weapons’ ban that was initially passed in 1994 and that phased out in 2004.

As Dylan Matthews has written at Vox, however, it is not clear that the measures that most Democrats support, including president Barack Obama and presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, would accomplish significant reductions in mass shootings or gun homicides.

He argues that the United States would have to go much, much farther, including the kind of mandatory confiscation and widespread bans on firearms that Australia’s conservative government (at the time) introduced after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, which left 35 people dead and 23 people wounded:

Realistically, a gun control plan that has any hope of getting us down to European levels of violence is going to mean taking a huge number of guns away from a huge number of gun owners.

Other countries have done exactly that. Australia, for example, enacted a mandatory gun buyback that achieved that goal, and saw firearm suicides fall as a result. But the reforms those countries enacted are far more dramatic than anything US politicians are calling for — and even they wouldn’t get us to where many other developed countries are.

As Matthews notes, there’s only so much that American politicians can do in the current political climate. Moreover, the 2nd Amendment potentially places real constitutional limits on gun control. After the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, I’m not so sure that even the current Court, deadlocked with four generally conservative justices and four generally liberal justices, would necessarily give its blessing to an Australia-style reform.

But the fundamental problem isn’t necessarily constitutional or legislative. It’s culture. Americans have a gun culture unlike anywhere else in the developed world. Until and unless Americans eliminate that culture (not likely anytime soon), it’s going to prove impossible to enact the kind of gun control legislation that could show dramatic reductions in gun violence.

As a Millennial gay man living in downtown Washington, I don’t really care for guns. Hunting bored me, even when I was a kid in rural Ohio. But I’m not everyone in the United States, and many law-abiding Americans love their guns — as a means of protecting their homes, as a principled symbol of individual liberty, for the sport of hunting or just for the love of firearms in its own right. I would personally love an American culture that looks more like European culture or Japanese culture. But no one could make that happen unilaterally, even if he or she were elected president tomorrow with a majority in both the House and the Senate.

Any effort to eradicate the number of guns in circulation in the United States would be most successful if you went back in time to the middle of the 20th century. It’s hard, frankly, to think of a single policy issue that suffers more from path determination (including rail and public transportation). Even more, if you’re a leftist and you care anything about civil liberties, you should also be worried about the kind of police power you would need to round up the vast majority of guns in the United States, because it would rival the kind of force you would need to, say, round up 11 million Mexican immigrants for deportation.

What’s fascinating is to chart the trajectory of gun culture in Japan. An early adopter, Japan was one of the first countries to experiment with the gunpowder invented in nearby China, and it might have started using very primitive firearms as early as the middle of the 13th century. Throughout the 16th century, however, Japan was a country divided and at war, among various daimyo (feudual lords) across the islands we today recognize as Japan. Firearms, imported from traders in Portugal and the rest of Europe, played an important and lethal role in those civil wars. In particular, firearms played a pivotal role in Oda Nobunaga’s victories in the 1570s and early 1580s that largely unified the island of Honchu.

That helped paved the way for 1603 when Ieyasu Tokugawa essentially pacified Japan by defeating and then breaking the power of those daimyo. As peace endured, there were fewer legitimate uses for firearms. Moreover, as the Tokugawa period soon introduced a period of isolation from the West, Japanese leaders had no fear that European weaponry would win up in the hands of the citizenry, and as gun production ceased domestically, the supply of new firearms dried up completely. Samurai warriors, re-appropriated as the backbone of the Tokugawa-era bureaucracy, had an interest in the de-proliferation of firearms because samurai held a monopoly on carrying swords. In the 1870s, at the height of the westernization process of the Meiji era, samurai, in turn, were banned from carrying swords. Over time, however, a country awash in guns in the 17th century became a country with virtually no guns (compared to American levels) today.

Indeed, Japan today has a gun violence rate of virtually zero, making the European rate look terrifying in contrast, let alone the American rate. But it’s also incredibly, incredibly difficult to buy and own even the tamest of firearms in Japan. While there are up to 310 million guns held by civilians in the United States today, there are just around 710,000 in Japan. The penalties for violating Japan’s gun laws are so high, the yakuza, Japan’s organized crime outfits, do not even bother trying to obtain or use them:

In July 2008, a 45-year-old white-collar worker on the island of Shikoku who tried to renew his shotgun registration using a forged medical certificate was arrested following extensive checks on charges of forgery and violations of the firearms-control law….

One mid-level yakuza boss told me, “Having a gun now is like having a time bomb. Do you think any sane person wants to keep one around the house?” The police are not given a free hand in using guns either. Internal controls make it very difficult for a gun or even a single bullet to fall into the hands of criminals.

Gun ownership in Japan is also ridiculously expensive — by one estimate, ¥115,000 (in today’s yen, the equivalent of $1100):

The Dai Nihon Hunters Friendship Association (Dainihon Ryoyukai), a public organization with branches nationwide, runs training programs that cost around ¥56,000 for sample tests and lectures. This includes training on how to use a firearm. There is a further ¥14,000 commission that must be sent in with the gun permit application. Then there’s the firearm itself, which, the association estimates, could cost ¥45,000 minimum. Bullets for a rifle run about ¥80 each. The police-approved gun locker costs ¥30,000 and the approved ammunition locker ¥10,000. Then there are the accessories needed to carry and clean the firearms, probably costing another ¥10,000. So the minimum cost for becoming a gun-toting hunter is estimated at ¥115,000. There is also an additional local government hunt-registration fee and a hunting tax. That costs around ¥19,000 and is only valid in the registered prefecture, though it covers hunting for birds and other animals.

The lesson here is that while Japan’s culture wasn’t always so anti-gun, it took four centuries of internal and external events to guide it to its current gun culture. It’s not something you can just replicate in the United States from a best-practices policy manual.

That doesn’t mean Americans in favor of gun control should bow to fatalism and give up. But it does mean that a sudden gun confiscation program or a push to revoke the 2nd amendment aren’t likely to happen anytime soon.

Where does that leave gun control advocates? Maybe, as is often the case, technology outruns policy stalemates. Smart gun technologies are advancing, such that firearms will not work unless positively identified by fingerprint (which would help prevent accidental shootings by toddlers, for example). Instead of focusing on banning certain types of weapons, advocates should continue to push for universal background checks (without loopholes) and possibly even psychiatric evaluations prior to purchase.

With each subsequent mass shooting, there’s invariably a short window for gun control advocates to make their case for regulations that do not, on their face, violate the 2nd Amendment. But American law exists within the context of American culture, just like Japanese law exists within its own Japanese culture.

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