Gun ownership rights are written into the U.S. Constitution. It’s one of the things that makes the U.S. unique among nations. As one might expect, lots of Americans own guns. In fact, if you do a quick search for “gun ownership statistics by nation” you might find an interesting Wiki-list. One hundred and seventy-five countries are listed. Next to each country is a number, representing the estimated number of guns for every one hundred people. It comes as no surprise that the U.S. is at the top of the list with a figure of 112.6. The number of guns in the U.S. is estimated to be a little bit higher than the number of people. American gun ownership laws make it impossible to get an exact figure on how many people own guns, but estimates are somewhere around 25%. It is also estimated that just over one-third of U.S. households have at least one gun.
The next country on the list is Serbia, where it is estimated that there are 58.21 guns for every one hundred people. Yemen, Cypress, Saudi Arabia, Finland, Iraq, Uruguay, Sweden, and Norway are also in the top ten. In tenth place, Norway’s number is 31.3. But remember, there are one hundred seventy-five nations included in the list. The gun numbers don’t drop into the single digits until you get to Costa Rica in sixty-fifth place with a number of 9.9 guns for every one hundred people.
Well, today I’m writing about a country that is much further down the list. My parents’ work as missionaries brought them to this country from the U.S. in 1955. I was born and raised here and have continued to live and work here most of my adult life. I am a U.S. citizen; English is my first language, but I have been able to get permanent residence in this country, which is the equivalent of a green card in the U.S. I’m in my mid-fifties and have only recently become a gun owner in this country where there are only 0.6 guns for every one hundred people. That means six guns for every one thousand people, or one gun for every one hundred sixty-seven people. This country’s rank on the list is one hundred sixty second. There are only thirteen countries on the list with fewer guns per capita. The country I’m talking about is Japan.
This is where I live, on Mt. Akagi, which is about 100 miles north of Tokyo.
First a word about why I decided to apply for a gun license in Japan. My work takes our family to the U.S. every three years or so, for about six months. Our base in the U.S. is in Colorado so we thoroughly enjoy the outdoors when we are there. Over the years my sons and I enjoyed shooting and hunting in the Rockies but I never imagined I would pursue gun ownership or hunting in Japan. But then about four years ago my wife and I moved away from Tokyo and high into the mountains of Gunma Prefecture, about one hundred miles north of Tokyo. We live at and manage a camp facility and are surrounded by rugged mountains and deep forests that are teeming with deer, bear and other small mammals. That was enough to get me interested and so I began the arduous journey of pursuing a Japanese gun permit and hunting license.
Perhaps the most obvious questions are, “Just how strict is gun control in Japan?” and “Why is it so strict?” To answer the first question, you must understand that unlike U.S. law, the first premise in Japanese gun laws is that private citizens are not allowed to own guns. That’s the starting point. So, in order to actually own a gun, you have to go thru a process that makes an exception to the law. You must get permission to do something that is prohibited by law. Of course, if you jump thru all the hoops and get that permission, then you aren’t violating any laws by owning a gun; but it’s an exception.
Fall colors peak in mid-October, and hunting season starts on November 15th.
In response to the second question, this could also turn into a long history lesson or worse yet, a highly political diatribe. But to put it simply, Japan has always had a highly-stratified population. Historically there were four recognized classes of people. Warriors (samurai), farmers (peasants), artisans and merchants. Only warriors were allowed to own weapons. The first actual laws prohibiting ownership of weapons came into effect in 1588, and when Japan transformed from a feudal state to a modern democracy. In the mid sixteen hundreds, the four social classes were eliminated and even the samurai were required to turn in their weapons. Of course, at that point in history, it was almost exclusively about swords rather than guns. Then again, after WWII Japanese legal codes were reworked and very strict gun control was written into law.
So, what are the hoops thru which one must jump to receive an exception to the law and get a gun license? Trying to list every required step, document and fee would make for a stupidly long list and very boring reading so I’ll try to summarize.
The first major step is attending a one-day seminar on gun laws and taking a written test. You have to score 90% or better on the test to pass. Of course, it’s all in Japanese and consists of fifty multiple choice questions, many of which are intentionally designed to be trick questions. Before you can apply for the seminar and test you must make multiple visits to your local police station, sit thru numerous interviews, complete and submit a big stack of documents and pay a fee. If you are approved, you get permission to attend the seminar and take the test.
Hunting season continues until February 15th so late season looks like this.
If you pass the test you can apply for the second major step which is to attend a half-day gun and shooting class at a registered shooting range and take a shooting test at the end of the day. This step is easier to pass because you only need to hit two or three clays in a round of twenty-five. You can choose skeet or trap. But, getting permission to take this class and shooting test is significantly harder than the first step because it involves actually handling a real firearm and purchasing ammunition for the test. More interviews take place, more documents are required and you also must submit a document from a licensed physician confirming that you are of sound mind. Furthermore, the local police are required to interview at least one co-worker of the applicant, any family members that lives with the applicant, and any number of neighbors. Questions they asked my wife included, “How much does he drink?”, “How does he behave when he drinks?”, “Does he have a temper?”, “Has he ever hit you?”, “Does he use any illegal substances?”, “Does he have any sort of criminal record?”, “Is there any history of mental health issues in either of your families?” and many more. Questions they asked my co-worker and neighbors included, “Is he in debt?”, “Does he or any of his family members have any associations with organized crime?”, “Does he gamble?”, “Has he ever talked about suicide?”, “Does he ever get in arguments or fights with people?” and lots more. If all these questions are answered satisfactorily and all the required documents are in order one can finally receive permission to attend the class and take the shooting test. This is also the most expensive portion of the process. The gun class and shooting test alone will cost about $300 and there are various other fees to be paid.
Once these first two steps are completed and both tests (written and shooting) are passed, then you finally get close to the final step of submitting an application for a gun license. Of course, that license will only be for one specific gun so you must spend time at your local gun shop or have a friend who is selling or giving you a gun. Documentation for that specific gun is submitted with the license application. Then the police come to your house again to inspect whether you have approved lockers for your gun and ammunition and that they are properly installed. Locker regulations specify how thick the metal must be, what type of hinge, bolt system and locking mechanism are used and the required dimensions. Both lockers must be permanently bolted to a back wall and they must be in separate locations, preferably separate buildings, and completely out of sight of people visiting your home. Only the licensed gun owner can ever have access to the keys or the contents of the lockers. If your lockers are approved and everything else is in order you will usually receive notification of whether your gun license has been granted or not within a month or two. Once you receive a gun license you are required to purchase or take possession of that specific gun within thirty days. After taking possession of the gun you have fourteen days to bring it in to the police station where they will inspect it and give you final confirmation. At that point you are finally allowed to use the gun. By this time, you will have paid about $400-$500 in fees and spent another $300-$500 on the lockers. Congratulations! You are now a licensed gun owner in Japan!
In the spring things get very green!
In my next installment, I’ll talk about regulations for the use of guns (sorry, no plinking in the backyard allowed… actually no plinking period!), regulations for the purchase, storage and use of ammunition, types of guns allowed and not allowed, and requirements for gun inspections and license renewals. After that, if there is interest I may write about hunting laws, and hunting in general. As a side note, despite the tight regulation of guns, when it comes to hunting, Japan is a virtual paradise! I’ll be back soon.