For some expats, US gun violence makes Japan feel like a haven
Special To The Washington Post | .
published: July 20, 2016
TOKYO — Last year, there were more than 13,000 gun deaths in the United States. In Japan, according to the National Police Agency, there was one.
The two countries share robust diplomatic and trade ties, but they could not be more different when it comes to gun violence: Japan has the lowest rate of gun deaths in the developed world, while the United States has the highest.
Now, following news of the latest mass shootings in their country, some Americans living in Japan are trying to decide whether returning home is worth the risk.
As Sibyl Kane prepared for a 13-hour flight from Tokyo to Newark, she said the violence was heavy on her mind. To get to her brother's house in Connecticut, the 45-year-old attorney will drive past Sandy Hook Elementary, site of a 2012 mass shooting and a reminder, she said, that "no place is immune."
"If Americans are OK with that, that says something about us as a society that is so profoundly disturbing, it's hard for me to parse out where I fit into it."
Kane, who has lived in Tokyo for eight years, said she and her husband are hesitant to move back with their 4-year-old daughter. Japanese schools might have earthquake drills, she said, but she'd rather explain a natural disaster than a shooter lockdown.
Mary Nobuoka, 50, a university lecturer who has lived in Japan for more than 20 years, said she is so concerned about school shootings that when her father offered to let her 13-year-old son live with him in the United States so she wouldn't have to pay for an expensive English-language school in Japan, she declined.
"I know shootings are rare," she said, "but why would you play Russian roulette?"
For others, the violence is more than theoretical. Lance Hardy, 27, an editor and translator from Tampa who has been in Japan three years, said a turning point for him was the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando last month. He woke up to the news that 49 people were dead, he said, including someone he knew.
"Now I look at going back home, but I don't know where I'd go to feel safe," he said. As a gay man, he said, he worries about being targeted.
Hardy is even considering giving up his citizenship.
"Especially with how close the gun violence was to me, I'm done, I'm in no rush to go back," he said. Nobuoka also said she thinks about expatriating but still hopes the country will change.
Last year, more than 4,000 Americans renounced their citizenship, a record high, according to the IRS, which produces the official list. The agency declined to comment on possible reasons for the increase, although analysts say that recently instituted tax requirements for overseas assets are a major impetus.
At the same time, `a record number of Americans are moving to Japan. At the end of 2015, there were nearly half a million nonmilitary and nondiplomatic U.S. citizens living in Japan, according to the Justice Ministry — 100,000 more than a decade ago. And more of them are staying, taking advantage of a relatively simple visa extension process. As long-term residents, they are entitled to the same benefits and pensions as Japanese citizens, with the exception of voting rights.
Ryan LaRosa, a 43-year old English as a Second Language teacher from Cleveland, said that when he and his Japanese wife were deciding where to raise their two children, those benefits — including national health insurance and government-subsidized day care — plus the high rates of gun violence in the United States persuaded them to choose Tokyo.
Parents here feel so safe that they routinely send their children to school alone through the cities' crowded streets and subways. And for longtime residents used to that kind of security, uncertainty about conditions back home can be unnerving. Joshua Barry, 43, an advertising producer who has lived in Japan for 20 years, says this summer is the first time he is worried about visiting.
"You have nervous, angry police and nervous, angry citizens — and everyone's armed," he said. "It's not a good place to be."
Police officers in Japan carry guns but rarely use them. Last year, in a country of 127 million, there were just eight crimes committed in which guns were fired, according to the National Police Agency.
Even organized crime groups, known as yakuza, are giving up their guns because of the harsh penalties for possessing them, let alone firing them. The result is a vanishingly small number of firearms in the country: Japan has 0.6 guns per 100 civilians, a rounding error compared with the United States' 101 guns per 100 civilians, the most in the world.
John Durkin, 56, president of the Tokyo American Club and a former naval officer and Coast Guard-qualified rifle and pistol marksman, said he doesn't miss Americans' easy access to guns. "I've never heard any of my friends or colleagues complain about there not being a Second Amendment here," he said.
The American model is so incomprehensible to many in Japan that after the mass shooting in Orlando, the Sankei newspaper said in an editorial that "[American] society, in which criminals can easily acquire firearms, is abnormal."
The government also issued travel warnings for the United States after the Orlando attack and after the shootings in Baton Rouge; Falcon Heights, Minn.; and Dallas, advising Japanese citizens to avoid protests and exercise caution at large venues and on public transportation.
And Japanese companies operating in Texas, including Hitachi, Central Japan Railway, JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration and Sekisui Chemical, raised their own internal alert levels "amid concerns over deteriorating safety in the United States," according to the Japan News.
Not all Americans are worried about returning. Timo Frazier, 34, a photographer, said there always has been violence in the United States and that technology is just making it easier to see.
And at least one American here sees the recent violence as a reason to return. Baye McNeil, a 50-year-old Brooklyn native who writes a column for the Japan Times about people of African descent in Japan, said it is hard to watch his country struggle from afar.
"It's heart-rending," he said. "You really feel like you're cut off from being part of the solution."
McNeil said his friends and family back home, some of whom participated in recent Black Lives Matter protests, aren't pushing him to come back, though.
"They're saying, 'Stay there, man.' Nobody's giving me pressure to come back. They're pressuring me not to come back. A lot of them want to join me here."