Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT
Among the pictures of the beautiful imperial gardens and Zen temples in Japan I took while traveling in the country recently, there is one that's not so beautiful. It's a National Police Agency of Japan poster on a billboard in a quiet residential neighborhood in Kyoto featuring the snapshots of eight men. They are wanted for committing a variety of crimes in various precincts across the country and the details are listed beside their faces.
Even without knowing the Japanese language, it is clear what the poster is all about. And judging by the Chinese-style characters mixed in the Japanese language and having basically the same meaning, five of the eight men committed homicide. The others seemed to be burglars.
Normally, a poster like this could make someone traveling alone in a foreign country, like myself, shudder in fear. But not this one. Indeed, the reason I took this picture was that this was the only such posters I saw in a 12-day trip through four cities. And judging by the crime rate statistics for Japan, I won't be surprised if this is the complete wanted list for the entire country.
Japan's crime rate has been among the lowest in the world. The homicide rate, defined by murder cases per 100,000 people, has been kept below 1 for decades. In 2015, 933 of the country's 130 million people were murdered, putting the rate at around 0.6.
These figures would make most nations in the world very jealous. Many try to come up with Japan-based prescriptions to cure their own problems. In the US, where the murder rate is 5 per 100,000, conservatives have been highlighting Japan's low immigration rate and insisting that is a major reason for the higher levels of security in the country.
Such voices have been getting louder ever since President Donald Trump
moved into the White House. Indeed, the president himself has never hesitated to draw correlations between immigrants and crimes.
If immigration really has a negative effect on public safety, the Trump administration's policies on restraining immigration would have value. But just because something is distinctly visible doesn't mean it is what makes the difference.
So, to say the low percentage of immigrants in Japan - less than 2 percent currently - is the reason for its low crime rate is like attributing someone's intelligence to his bald head.
One doesn't have to look far for evidence. After Japan, I came to Singapore, another country that is known for its low crime rate. At a coffee shop, I chatted with a barista who was curious about New York, where I live. When the topic went to public safety and I told her about the current homicide rate, basically one person gets killed each day in the Big Apple, she put her hands on her cheeks and forms her mouth into an O shape.
Her astonishment is understandable. With a homicide rate below 0.4, Singapore basically faces one killing per month. Mind you, this is an immigrant country where foreign-born people make up 43 percent of its 5.6 million population, which is a few percentage points higher than New York.
While iron fist enforcement of laws and heavy punishments for violators have clearly played a major role in the orderliness of Singapore, Japan is a more complicated case.
A 2014 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime pointed out that "amongst other factors, extremely low levels of gun ownership in Japan (1 in 175 households), a greater chance of detection (according to police data, 98 percent of homicide cases are solved), the rejection of violence after the WWII, and the growth of affluence without the accompanying concentrations of poverty common in many highly developed countries, and the stigma of arrest for any crime in Japanese society" have all contributed to the low crime rate in Japan.
To crime experts around the world who have been vying to decode the secret of Japan's low crime rate, this may be bad news. It means that it is the distinct history, culture and personalities of its people working together that make the country as safe as it is. In other words, Japan's model is a whole package that may not be easily replicable by anyone else.
As for the US, it can blame many things for its crime rate. But certainly not immigrants. The author is a New York-based journalist. firstname.lastname@example.org