"Far fewer police are employed in Japan compared to the United States and Japan spends considerably less on police, courts, and corrections. Japanese police serve in a wide range of activities such a the resolution of domestic disputes, prevention of crime, and enforcement of laws. ...The close relationship that Japanese police have with local community is one of the reasons for their effectiveness." Culture, Peers and Delinquency, 2003
The Japanese police have some unique advantages over American police. The Japanese culture is basically homogeneous. The police don't have to work with people from different cultures fighting against each other, and the police don't have to fine-tune tactics for each culture. Japan does have some forms of discrimination against certain groups of Japanese, but absolutely nothing like in America with problems of various groups hating each other, leading to racial violence and hate crimes.
Another advantage the Japanese police have lies in the very nature of Japanese society. It is a much more structured and polite society than ours. The Japanese have been brought up to think of the group, and how their actions affect that group, whether that group be Japan in general, the family, the place they work for, or anything else specific. A lot of peer pressure and self-pressure in the form of shame can be used by police to help defuse and solve various problems. Such positive form of peer pressure is basically absent in the U.S.
If anything, peer pressure especially among the young is to "bad" things without worrying about the consequences and impact on others. So right off Japanese police will have something working very much to their advantage.
Another huge advantage Japanese police have is that they do not have to worry so much about guns being used in crimes. Some are, of course, and at times worse things, but in general the police are much freer of fear of situations where gun play is almost an inevitable event. Japan has strong gun control laws. In 1987 only 265 crimes in Japan involved guns. About one officer per year is killed by firearms; in the U.S. around 65 per year are killed by firearms.
From the book Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld, 2003, we find out that in 1998 only 22 people were killed in Japan by firearms. In the same year, 30,708 were killed in the U.S. Since the U.S. population is about 2 ½ times the size of Japan's, then theoretically there should have been 55 people killed in the U.S. instead of 30.708, all other things being equal. Of course, all other things are not legal since firearms are so easily available in the U.S. (and yes, guns kill people but it's people holding the guns and firing them that kill the people.)
In addition, according to the same source, Americans are 22 times more likely to be raped and five times more likely to be victimized by property crime than are Japanese.
The Japanese nation also does not have as massive a drug problem as does the U.S., again giving Japanese police officers another area where they have an advantage over their American counterparts.
A major difference lies in the entire approach of police to the people they serve. In Japan there are lots of kobans in cities and chuzaisho in the country area. These are police boxes where one or more officers is based. They are very easy to find in cities and very common. The Japanese police working out of the kobans know their areas intimately; they know the people there and often work closely with them, distributing information on ways to avoid robbery, helping drunks to get home and often serving as someone people can simply talk to when upset about things.
The origins of the koban go all the way back to the construction of Edo (now known as Tokyo). Edo was laid out as a city prepared for war; streets were not straight but were winding to help slow down any invading army. Where the streets came together to form a "T" a place was built where warriors could live. These places also served as traffic control centers. Over time these warrior posts evolved into the present-day kobans. There are some 15,000 kobans in Japan and some 90,000 police officers assigned to them.
The Japanese police officer is basically a police officer and a psychologist at the same time. They work very long hours, though, more so than American police officers.
The Japanese police, in effect, have what I would call a "unity" effect with the people they serve, whereas American police officers are often in adversarial relationships with the public.
The public perception of police is also very different in the two countries, and this again serves as a major advantage to the Japanese policeman.
There is also national coordination of police in Japan. The police system basically was instituted from the top government on down. In the U.S. competing police groups formed so that you have city, state and national forces all often at odds with each other. Police are hemmed in by strict limits over the areas they can pursue criminals; in Japan police pursuit has no such limits.
The entire effect of all these factors, then, is that police work in Japan, although difficult and involving very long hours, is safer than in the U.S. and, in my opinion, serves the public better than the U.S.
In 1987 the crime rate in Japan was 1,131.2 per 100,000 people. It was 3,681.9 in the U.S. There were six and a half times as many murders per person in the U.S. as in Japan. Just the city of New York had as many murders in that year as the entire country of Japan.
The incidence of rape is 25 times higher in the U.S. than it is in Japan. The rate of robbery in the U.S. was 129 times higher in that year than in Japan. Drug arrests were 1.8 per 100,000 compared to the U.S. 38.4 per 100,000.
Comparing various countries and their homicide rates, the U.S. was 8.3 per 100,000 people; it was 5.5 in Britain, 4.3 in West Germany, and 4.1 in France.
And yes, I know that 1987 is a good distance removed and that violence has increased somewhat in Japanese society. Still, I believe that the overall numbers are probably not that much terribly different now.
A good book on the Japanese police system is Forces of Order: Policing Modern Japan by David H. Bayley.
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