How can the most populous metropolitan area in the world also have the least amount of crime? But Tokyo is not without its dangers…
THE WORLD’S BIGGEST CITY IS ALSO THE SAFEST
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?
CAN 38 MILLION PEOPLE SURVIVE A TSUNAMI?
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.’”
CAN VOLCANOES SUBDUE A POPULATION?
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…
WHY ARE THERE VIRTUALLY NO WEAPONS IN TOKYO?
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…
DOES EACH FAMILY HAVE ITS OWN POLICE OFFICER?
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.
WHICH WAVE CAN CONQUER TOKYO?
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…
“CRIMES TARNISH THE FAMILY NAME. THOSE WHO COMMIT THEM WILL BE DISOWNED BY THEIR FAMILY— FOREVER. VERY FEW PEOPLE WOULD WANT THAT.” KENJI OHNO, TOKYO METROPOLITAN POLICE
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.