How can the most pop­u­lous metropoli­tan area in the world also have the least amount of crime? But Tokyo is not with­out its dan­gers…


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The cap­i­tal of Ja­pan has 38 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants, yet it has one of the low­est crime rates on Earth. What the world can learn from Tokyo…

Pic­ture a city that cov­ers an area as big as Puerto Rico. A city where the equiv­a­lent of one- eighth of the en­tire U.S. pop­u­la­tion lives—and it’s also 1.5 times as dense as New York City. A city that’s home to a sea of peo­ple wedged be­tween an ocean and high moun­tains, where the build­ings are up to 2,080 feet tall and get shaken by a per­cep­ti­ble earth­quake roughly once a month. A city where it takes three hours un­der ideal con­di­tions to drive from one side to the other, and which gets reg­u­larly flooded by ty­phoons in the summer. A city that sits where four seis­mic plates meet, which means the ocean can un­leash a tsunami at any time. The res­i­dents of Tokyo have many things to worry about—but crime is not one of them. How can that be pos­si­ble?


Tokyo holds three notable records: Thanks to its 38 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants, no metropoli­tan area in the world is big­ger. At the same time, no other me­trop­o­lis in the world is safer: The sta­tis­tics in­di­cate just 0.4 mur­ders take place per 100,000 res­i­dents— and that fig­ure con­tin­ues to decline. For com­par­i­son: Ger­many’s cap­i­tal, Ber­lin, has a rate of 1.8 per 100,000; St. Louis, Mis­souri, Amer­ica’s most dan­ger­ous city, comes in at 50 per 100,000, and in Cara­cas, Venezuela, the rate is 122 per 100,000 res­i­dents. How­ever, ac­cord­ing to the Swiss Re rein­sur­ance com­pany, no other ma­jor city has a greater risk of fall­ing vic­tim to a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter than Tokyo does.

The amount of early warn­ing time for an undersea earth­quake be­fore in­cred­i­bly high- energy 50-foot-tall waves ar­rive on land is just 15 to 40 min­utes, and for a lo­cal earth­quake the warn­ing time is just 80 sec­onds. Mil­lions of peo­ple live in the clos­est of quar­ters right in the face of to­tal catas­tro­phe—and yet the res­i­dents do not de­scend into panic, not even when, as had oc­curred in 2011, three nu­clear re­ac­tors ex­ploded 150 miles away in Fukushima. In con­trast with cities such as New Or­leans, where in 2005 Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina served as the spark that trig­gered lethal mass vi­o­lence and looting, the in­hab­i­tants of Tokyo calmly car­ried on with their usual ac­tiv­i­ties af­ter dis­as­ter struck, such as mak­ing the up to two-hour com­mute to work. “Looting sim­ply does not take place in Ja­pan,” says Gre­gory Pflugfelder, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of Ja­panese his­tory at Columbia Univer­sity in New York. “I’m not even sure there’s a word for it that is as clear in its im­pli­ca­tions as when we hear the word ‘looting.’”


This phe­nom­e­non is un­der­girded by a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence be­tween these two cul­tures. In the U.S. the es­sen­tial prin­ci­ple is in­de­pen­dence: “You do all you can to pro­tect your in­ter­ests know­ing that ev­ery­body else will do the same. And or­der will come from this ‘in­vis­i­ble hand,’” says Pflugfelder. “The Ja­panese do not func­tion that way: Or­der is seen as com­ing from the com­mu­nity, as an evening- out of dif­fer­ent in­di­vid­ual needs.” Dis­ci­pline, co­he­sion, and the pri­macy of the com­mu­nity have served as sur­vival strate­gies of the Ja­panese for mil­len­nia—there is no room for dis­or­der: About four-fifths of the area of the is­land na­tion is too moun­tain­ous to use. For cen­turies the in­hab­i­tants of Ja­pan have been liv­ing to­gether cheek by jowl be­hind pa­per-thin walls, es­pe­cially in Tokyo. That en­gen­ders con­sid­er­a­tion and cour­tesy from a young age. Ev­ery­one knows so­ci­ety’s rules. There are no ghet­tos that could shel­ter de­viants, and only 1% of the in­hab­i­tants have an im­mi­grant back­ground. How­ever, there are dev­as­tat­ing earth­quakes, tsunamis, and erup­tions of 60 ac­tive vol­ca­noes—in such cases of nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, fam­ily of­fers the strong­est sup­port. Fam­i­lies also dis­ci­pline the world’s big­gest city in times of peace far more ef­fec­tively than the po­lice ever could. But what hap­pens when some­one breaks this so­ci­etal code? Does the state en­tirely lack power? Quite the con­trary…


Pil­lag­ing Tokyo would be ex­tremely hard. With the ex­cep­tion of strictly reg­u­lated shot­guns and air ri­fles, firearms are for­bid­den for civil­ians. Sta­tis­tics show a firearm is present in only 1 in 175 house­holds in Ja­pan; Mean­while, in the U.S. the num­ber of firearms ex­ceeds the num­ber of adult citizens. The last mass mur­der in­volv­ing a gun in Tokyo took place in 1938, 79 years ago. In all of Ja­pan only a dozen mur­ders per year are com­mit­ted with the use of a firearm. In Ger­many the num­ber is closer to 70, and in the U.S. it’s about 12,000. “Some shoot­ing sprees that oc­cur in the U.S. claim more vic­tims than Ja­pan must mourn in a whole year,” says gun pol­icy ex­pert David Kopel. Weapons are so shunned in Ja­pan that even car­ry­ing a knife in public is enough to land a per­son in prison. And if that weren’t enough…


On al­most ev­ery third street cor­ner you’ll find a k ban—oth­ere are more than 800 in Tokyo’s in­ner city alone. The small lo­cal po­lice sta­tions are as much a part of Tokyo’s cityscape as hot dog carts are in New York. In these neigh­bor­hood po­lice sta­tions lo­cal “su­per­vi­sors” work the streets: The of­fi­cials, who are of­ten sta­tioned in one district for their en­tire ser­vice life, know their beat in­side and out. The re­spect for law and or­der is so preva­lent that they also re­ceive help from thou­sands of un­paid pa­trolling lo­cal res­i­dents. To them the po­lice are not snoop­ers; in­stead, po­lice are looked upon as trust­wor­thy pil­lars of the com­mu­nity who some­times even give ad­vice re­gard­ing pri­vate prob­lems. “They look out for peo­ple. And thanks to them, no street is ever dark,” says for­mer Tokyo gover­nor Yo-ichi Ma­su­zoe. The po­lice also do not shy away from pen­e­trat­ing into

the pri­vate sphere, for ex­am­ple by pe­ri­od­i­cally drop­ping by the homes of known weapon own­ers and us­ing the op­por­tu­nity to assess whether they still seem “emo­tion­ally sta­ble.” This dense mon­i­tor­ing net­work has con­trib­uted to one of the world’s best crime clear­ance rates—for ex­am­ple, for mur­der it’s 97.7%. Mean­while in the U.S., about one-third of mur­ders re­main un­re­solved.


The in­di­vid­ual is noth­ing, and the com­mu­nity is ev­ery­thing—in Ja­pan that’s just how it is, and nowhere is this bet­ter ex­em­pli­fied than Tokyo. There’s not much so­cial de­pri­va­tion, hence the lack of crim­i­nal hot spots: The na­tion that holds the dis­tinc­tion of hav­ing the fourth-largest econ­omy on Earth di­vides its wealth rel­a­tively evenly among its 127 mil­lion citizens. The best-paid com­pany CEO earns only one-tenth of the amount that would be earned by an ex­ec­u­tive in a com­pa­ra­ble po­si­tion in the U.S.

“This un­wa­ver­ing trust in sci­ence, em­ploy­ers, and govern­ment al­lows the Ja­panese to re­main calm even in times of cri­sis. Things go bet­ter when ev­ery­one pulls to­gether and co­op­er­ates,” ex­plains Misaki Ha­tori about the men­tal­ity of the Ja­panese, who with an av­er­age life ex­pectancy of 84 years have the world’s high­est life ex­pectancy. This at­ti­tude is also ev­i­dent in ev­ery­day life: Whether in the Metro or the streets—in Tokyo there are hardly any garbage bins, but there is no lit­ter ly­ing around. Peo­ple take their trash home with them. Ja­panese peo­ple tend not to place much trust in those out­side their own cul­tural cir­cle—reck­on­ing they could raise the crime rate in the coun­try’s 430 in­hab­ited is­lands. Of the 5,000 ap­pli­ca­tions for asy­lum it re­ceived last year, Ja­pan ap­proved just 11. Rather than an­other tsunami, a wave of vis­i­tors might ac­tu­ally be the big­gest test for Tokyo’s se­cu­rity: In the summer of 2020 the city will host the Olympic Games—at least 10 mil­lion vis­i­tors are ex­pected…


LOVE THY NEIGH­BOR A very high de­gree of con­sid­er­a­tion: These com­muters on the Metro aren’t wor­ried about other peo­ple’s viruses— face masks are worn to pro­tect fel­low trav­el­ers from one’s own germs.

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