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Last year, Japan’s crime rate rose for the first time in 20 years, and did so quite sharply. Alarming, perhaps, and surely nothing to celebrate. Especially since, without that bump, the country was on course to become the world’s first major society to be totally crime-free. Well, sort of. 

Japan’s crime figures, say the criminologists, involve equal measures of complexity and paradox. The nation’s reputation as a place of low street crime where a great many people are relatively safe from casual violence is well deserved. In other areas, such as fraud and cyber crime, it is something of a villains’ playground. 

The headline balance of all this is recorded each year by the National Police Agency under the title “penal code offences known to the police”: a metric which is deeply entwined with numerical police targets. Many academics view the figures as vulnerable to manipulation and some argue it projects a fundamentally unrealistic picture of the actual ebb and flow of criminality in the country. 

After peaking in 2002 at 2.85mn, the known incidents number has been falling relentlessly every year. By 2021, it had dropped to a postwar low of just over 568,000. In 2022, in part because of a resurgence of street crime as the country reopened after the pandemic, the figure jumped 5.9 per cent to 601,389.

The absurdity of these figures, notes Ryukoku University criminologist Koichi Hamai, is visible in the constantly falling trend-line. On one level, it is totally plausible that crime in Japan should be in long-term retreat: the population is shrinking, more than one in four people are over 65 and there are ever fewer young people around to foster what he calls “a culture of delinquency”. But even so, says Hamai, the straight line decline does not reflect the reality. On its former trajectory and without the 2022 blip upwards, recorded crime would have theoretically hit zero in about 10 years, which is surely the stuff of fantasy. 

Part of the explanation lies in how Japan, whose gross national debt as a percentage of GDP stands at a world-beating 261 per cent, continues to justify hefty police budgets at both the national and prefectural levels. This budget supports a total force (including office workers) of 296,194, meaning that one in every 250 working age Japanese are employed by the police. For those that see this vast scale of state-funded employment as a form of disguised economic subsidy, these are less Keystone than Keynesian cops.

The obvious strategy might be for the police to claim that the country was drowning under a tide of crime, and that their budgets were the only thing capable of holding that back. Instead, they have spent the past two decades highlighting their success as crime-fighters: regularly hitting (and, some suggest, manipulating) numerical targets for crime reduction at a pace that produced the strange prospect of eventually reaching zero.

Between 2013 and 2022, the “known crimes” number fell by roughly 50 per cent. Though calculation methods changed slightly over that period, the NPA budget rose by about 21 per cent during that time, and will rise again by a small margin in 2023.

The police wheeze has worked because the general public do not believe the figures any more than the criminologists. Japanese media, especially those beaming lurid daytime news analysis into elderly households, do a fine job of making Japan look hopelessly crime-ridden. The assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe last year played directly into this narrative. When the NPA surveyed the public last October — after a decade in which their metric of crime had plummeted — 67 per cent of respondents said public safety had fallen over the past 10 years.

But the fascinating possibility, says Hamai, is that the 2022 uptick in recorded crime marks a much more fundamental inflection point. We may, he says, be seeing the early symptoms of a shift to more realistic methods of tallying crime. Ultimately, the police may also start more actively uncovering and recording major categories of what are currently wildly under-reported crimes, such as domestic violence, sexual abuse and stalking, or rapidly increasing crimes, such as ransomware attacks. 

In the longer-term, say criminologists, an even more significant overhaul is required to produce a scientific estimate of the crime trends in Japan. The model here, suggests Hamai, is the kind of crime survey conducted in the UK, which focuses on victims. Japan may, even then, retain its reputation as a fabulously safe country. But surely not one without any crime at all.

leo.lewis@ft.com

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