TOKYO – Japanese who travel abroad are repeatedly warned in travel literature, by their travel agents, by friends, and by the news media that once they leave Japan they will be in danger of being robbed, injured or even killed if they do not remain alert and take special measures to protect themselves.
The Japanese are cautioned never to set their bags down in a hotel lobby or in any kind of transportation terminal; to never walk in certain areas of cities at night; to be wary of conmen, touts, and so on.
Unfortunately, these warnings are not exaggerated or based on unwarranted fears. Given the number of Japanese who are robbed and often beaten while they are abroad it is remarkable that so many — some 14 to 15 million — continue to travel overseas each year.
In contrast to this, it is so rare for a foreign traveler in Japan to be robbed, beaten, killed or even harassed in any way that when it does happen it makes national headlines.
The incidence of violent crimes has gone up dramatically in Japan since the introduction of democracy and Western culture following the end of World War II in 1945, but the crime rate is still far below that of Western countries, and generally does not involve foreign victims.
One often hears that in Japan women can walk alone, at all hours of the night, in city districts that are notorious for their low life and the presence of street thugs and professional gangsters without fear of being accosted, robbed or raped. And that is true.
One also hears that foreign women are even safer when they are out and about in Japan — wherever they may be and whatever the hour — because Japanese males, including the criminal element, are less likely to harm foreigners. And that is true.
The continuing low level of crime in Japan, in particular the low incidence of people being attacked in the streets — day or night — can be attributed to Shinto and Buddhist standards established in the culture very early in Japan’s history, and reinforced politically and socially during the long Shogunate period (1185-1868), when armed samurai warriors administered the country and were empowered to quickly and severely punish law and custom breakers.
During the early decades of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867), samurai warriors were legally permitted to kill people on the spot for violations of etiquette or the law that today would be considered minor infractions.
Given the combined influence of the Shintoism and Buddhism, both of which advocated non-violence, and the social morality mandated and enforced by the samurai rulers of Japan, ordinary Japanese became paragons of honesty and good manners.
Still today, people routinely leave unlocked bicycles on the sidewalks and in front of stores and stations. As a rule, you can leave a bag or some other possession virtually anywhere in public and it will be there when you get back. Shops routinely put product displays outside, and leave them unguarded.
It is said that the extraordinary success of vending machine marketing in Japan occurred because it was possible to set them up out in the open, in unprotected places, with virtually no chance that they would be vandalized and robbed.
Stories abound of the time and effort people expend to return lost or forgotten property, especially where foreign travelers are concerned. This is not only a manifestation of the honesty that is built into the character of the Japanese. It is also because the Japanese feel that they and the whole country are responsible for the welfare of visitors.
This security factor is one of Japan’s greatest assets, and is an integral part of the attraction that the country has as a travel destination. It is also one of the reasons why foreign residents are so attracted to life in Japan.
Editor's note: Boyé Lafayette De Mente (1928-2017) first came to Japan in 1949 as a member of the occupation forces. He held a degree in economics and Japanese from Tokyo's Sophia University, and a BFT from the American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale, Arizona.
He was best known as the author of a highly successful series of books on social and business customs in Japan, China, Korea and Mexico. As a journalist with the Japan Times, and later on as editor of 'The Importer Magazine,' he witnessed at close hand the rapid growth of Asia's 'tiger' economies. His guidelines to westerners wishing to do business in the new post-war Japan were widely recognized as ground-breaking.
I am indebted to Mr. De Mente ffor sending the above article to republish here in Japan Perspectives.