Mount Fuji

Crime and the U.S. servicemen in Okinawa

A reader recently wrote to ask if crime is rising in Japan. She had seen reports about motorcycle gangs, presumably running wild.

The average Japanese motorcycle gang is about as fearsome as a pack of bull hamsters. They are composed of morons who get their kicks riding their bikes without mufflers.

That's about it. Marlon Brando would have decided these guys were Squaresville, strictly from hunger, and split the scene in no time.

However, compared to some places in the U.S.A. (Seattle comes to mind) Japan has always had lots of crime, particularly burglary and fraud.

The NPA (Japan's National Police Agency) announced that 2.2 million "serious crimes" would probably be committed during 2001, the highest rate in over 20 years. Here are a few clips from the August 20th news:

A gang of four or five men knocked over a Sagawa Kyubin armored truck in Kamogawa near Tokyo, got away with the equivalent of $300,000, and sent the guard and driver of the van to the hospital with multiple injuries.

Not too far away a few hours later, a robber snuck through the employee entrance of one of the highly popular Matsumoto Kiyoshi drugstores, entered the office, threatened the boss with a knife, forced him to open the safe, and got away with about the equivalent of $50,000.

Later that day in Tokyo itself, in crowded Ueno, another knife-wielding man held up a pachinko parlor and got away with around $45,000.

A typical day in Tokyo? No, not at all, not by any stretch of the imagination. Your reporter can never remember this many armed robberies in one day in the Tokyo area in the entire time he has lived there, nearly 23 years.

The statistics posted on the NPA Web site bear him out. During all of last year, there were roughly 7,000 armed robberies in all of Japan, which is about 20 a day for the entire country, but this is in a population of 120,000,000.

By comparison, there is a gang in Boston which is currently staging up to three armed robberies of pharmacies a day for drugs. As of this writing, they are still at large. Where are you, Detective Friday?

Multiply these Boston robberies by the size of the U.S.A. and the sheer number of creeps out there, and then ask yourself how many armed robberies there were in the U.S.A. last year. Japan doesn't look a bit bad by comparison when it comes to violent crime. Japan is very safe with little street crime. The Japanese prefer crimes of stealth like burglary or fraud.

So, how does Japan come up with "2,200,000 serious crimes a year"? It all matters what you mean by "serious."

What the NPA means by "serious" is "indictable" crimes, in other words, any crime for which a Japanese judge can issue an arrest warrant. This lumps both felonies and misdemeanors together. The vast majority of what the Japanese call "serious crimes" would never be termed "serious" in the U.S.A.

But this is how they do things in Japan. One suspects that the NPA has its eye on the yearly appropriation process. Unlike the U.S.A., there are no local police. There is no Tokyo Police Department, for example. All police belong to the NPA, and there is no other police force, so don't be a-lookin' for a Japanese version of the Texas Rangers either, pardner.

Included in what the NPA calls "serious crimes" are barroom brawls, drunken driving, shoplifting, putting slugs in vending machines (an all-time Japanese favorite), reckless driving, car accidents, and bicycle theft (the bane of Japanese cops). Then getting more serious, fraud, pot and methedrine possession — the tiny Japanese drug underground is partial to a particularly rough form of methedrine known as shabu — housebreaking (another big Japanese favorite), and finally arriving at what Americans would consider serious crimes: assault, rape, child molestation, armed robbery, and premeditated murder. Everything is tossed together in the same bag.

Somewhere in there also are the crimes committed by U.S. servicemen in Okinawa. If you have a powerful enough microscope, and we recommend one of the super-duper high, high, high magnification models, you might be able to find the microscopic amount of "serious" crimes committed per year by U.S. servicemen in Okinawa.

A short look at the figures shows that U.S. servicemen are well behaved and law-abiding, particularly compared to the Japanese.

Looking at the Internet pages about crimes by U.S. servicemen in Okinawa (taking our information from the pages most strongly opposed to the U.S. presence in Okinawa), in the last 30 years since Okinawa reverted to Japan, U.S. servicemen in Okinawa have committed 5,000 "serious crimes."

Serious, of course, as defined by the NPA. Enter the bull hamster factor again. Of these 5,000 crimes, 90 percent can be immediately dismissed as misdemeanors: car accidents, drunken driving (a serious matter in Japan), shoplifting, drug possession and drug sale, and of course barroom brawls. The remaining 10 percent of incidents are what Americans would consider truly serious crimes, the rapes, the murders, the assaults, and the armed robberies.

Altogether, about 160 of what are considered "serious" crimes (once again, the NPA definition) are committed in Okinawa every year by U.S. servicemen.

By contrast, how many "serious" crimes are committed every year in Okinawa by Japanese? Roughly 23,800 crimes a year.

Let's take this a bit further. Making the assumption — it isn't correct, but there is no male/female breakdown given in NPA statistics — that all the crimes are committed by men, then 650,000 Japanese males in Okinawa (Okinawa's population is 1.3 million) are committing 23,800 crimes per year while 30,000 U.S. servicemen are committing 160 crimes per year.

This gives a crime rate of 366 crimes per 10,000 Japanese males against 53 crimes per 10,000 U.S. servicemen. In other words, the per capita crime rate of U.S. servicemen in Okinawa is only 14 percent of that of the Japanese.

But for the sake of argument. let's say that the women in Okinawa are specially depraved and commit as many serious crimes as Japanese men do. So if we count all 1.3 million Japanese inhabitants of Okinawa, let's see how low we can get the Japanese crime rate per 10,000.

In this case, for all Okinawa, we end up with a Japanese crime rate of 183 per 10,000, as against a crime rate of 53 per 10,000 among U.S. servicemen. In other words, the crime rate among U.S. servicemen on Okinawa is only 28 percent of the Japanese crime rates, which is nearly 3.5 times per capita of the crime rate of U.S. servicemen.

But we know this isn't true. Women in Japan aren't carrying switchblades or knocking over banks. Women in Japan, much like women in America, commit roughly one twentieth the amount of crime that men do, and violent crime commited by women, in either the U.S.A. or Japan, is rare.

So it is not at all unjustified to make a rough comparison of the per capita crime rate of Japanese men on Okinawa with that of U.S. servicemen, because it tells volumes about what the real situation is.

The 160 crimes per year U.S. servicemen commit are lost in a sea of Japanese criminality, among the 23,800 crimes committed every year by the Japanese.

But there is another factor that skews the statistics even more in the favor of U.S. servicemen. During the last 30 years, over 2 million U.S. servicemen have passed through Okinawa, perhaps as many as 4 million, but for the sake of argument, let's use the lower figure.

The average stay of U.S. servicemen stationed in Japan is said to be about 18 months. Thirty thousand U.S. servicemen are currently stationed in Okinawa. During the Vietnam War and the Gulf Conflict, those numbers swelled as servicemen would be rotated through for a short time and then be reassigned. At times, there have been considerable flows of servicemen (and women) to and from Okinawa from other service stations in the Far East, Hawaii, Guam and the West Coast of the United States. So 2 million is not extreme for the number of troops that have passed through Okinawa in the last 30 years.

In other words, in 30 years, 2 million U.S. servicemen have committed 5,000 "serious crimes," as against 650,000 Japanese males committing 23,800 serious crimes in just one year, during 2001.

Need I say more? Yes, I and every American should scream this at the top of our lungs until everyone, including the Japanese government, the Japanese press, and most of all, Time Magazine, hears it.

So the next time a genuinely serious crime is committed in Okinawa by an American soldier, we should treat it as what it really is, a terrible exception to the rule that American servicemen are decent, well-disciplined, and respectful.

Then maybe the Japanese cops, and Japanese press, can get back to catching the real criminals, all 23,800 of them.

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Editor's note: Bill Stonehill hails from Chicago, Illinois. Trained as an engineer and China specialist, he has now been living in Tokyo for well over 20 years. He imports Swiss watches, is expert at taking them apart, and if anyone knows what makes Japan tick too then he does. From 1999 until 2001 he wrote a regular Japan column for the Morrock News Service (sadly discontinued), which was enjoyed by Web-surfers around the world. We greatly appreciate the author's allowing us to republish some of his very best articles here in Japan Perspectives.