Karl Denzer is an executive at a financial services company and frequent traveler to Japan.
It was fall in Tokyo, and Saki Arai needed a gun. Saki manages the Bistro Hibino and wanted to hunt wild game for her farm-to-table restaurant.
If Saki lived in, say, Tulsa, instead of Tokyo, getting a gun would have been almost as simple as buying a gallon of milk. She would visit one of the 20 licensed firearm dealers in the area, present her driver's license, fill out a couple of forms and leave the store with her gun. In Japan, however, obtaining a firearm isn't so easy.
Saki's first step was to attend a one-day training session organized by the Tokyo police, held once a month for those interested in acquiring a gun license. On a crisp September day, Saki and her husband, Tak, took off work to attend the beginner class, which started promptly at 9 a.m. Throughout the course of the day, the officer in charge outlined the steps they would need to follow and the responsibilities of owning a gun. The couple paid 6,800 yen — about $60 — for the session and were provided with several books to review for a test they had to complete that afternoon.
After they finished the class and passed the exam, they were instructed to contact their local police prefecture to apply for training at a licensed shooting range. They prepared the items they would need for their application; a certificate of residency, photo identification, a list of past jobs and addresses. Saki and Tak were required to visit a mental-health professional to be assessed for competency to own a firearm. When they completed the interview, they received a certificate.
Next, Saki and Tak visited their neighborhood police station, where they were directed to an officer sitting up straight in his chair in a crisp blue suit. He invited them to sit and asked them several questions. "Why do you want a gun?" "Where do you live and what do you do for a living?" "Do any of your relatives have mental-health issues?" Each answer was carefully documented, and one hour after arriving, they left the station.
In the days that followed, their application was checked against police databases — a process similar to our national background check — and subsequently they were notified they were approved to move to the next step, a training session at the Narita Shooting Range, about 90 minutes by car from Saki and Tak's apartment. When they arrived, they were served tea and told what to expect from their day: a classroom overview followed by a written exam covering gun safety, training on the range and a target session. After an hour of instruction and the exam, they headed to the range to practice. Both Saki and Tak passed the exam.
Over the next few days, a policeman made an unannounced visit to Tak's office, where he conducted separate interviews with two employees. He also went to Saki's restaurant and visited several of their neighbors, whom he asked questions such as "Do you ever hear screaming voices from their apartment?" The officers who handle these interviews have wide discretion to deny an application to anyone they deem high-risk. Their decision is final.
Saki and Tak are both responsible, law-abiding people, and it was not a surprise when they received notice that they could move to the next step — selecting a gun and making a formal submission to the National Police Agency. They collected and mailed in all of the necessary documents. In just under two months, they received their temporary license, required by gun shops to complete a sale.
At the Shibuya Juho-ten (Royal Gun Shop), near Shibuya metro station, they each picked out an $800 Remington shotgun; however, they were not yet allowed to take them home — the shop was required to hold them until their official license was issued. With a letter from the shop, they went back to their prefecture police station a few days later to make their final application and receive their license. It was now January, winter in Tokyo. Four months after starting their process, they joined the small number of Japanese citizens who own guns.
After obtaining hunting permits, Saki and Tak packed up their Remingtons, bird calls and waders and embarked on trips to Ibaraki prefecture, a popular duck-hunting spot about three hours away. The ducks they shot were given to Saki's chefs, who served them with fresh maitake mushrooms.
They now can hunt freely, but they are still bound by firearm regulations. For example, each time they visit a gun shop to purchase shotgun shells, they need to present their license. The store uses this to record how much ammunition they buy. They are also required to log these purchases in their "bullet-tracking book," along with a record of each time they fire. They had to take their guns for inspection at their police prefecture after three months to ensure that there have not been any modifications made without authorization. They also underwent an unannounced home inspection to assess how they store their guns and ammunition. The requirements for storage include keeping the guns and bullets in separate rooms and providing for wall-mounted lockers.
While lengthy and complex by U.S. standards, the entirety of the process Saki and Tak went through is designed to manage the risks inherent in firearms. There is no question that Japan's approach places a burden on those who wish to bear arms, but it also limits the ability of someone who is dangerous to get a gun. It's hard to argue with the results: In 2015, there were more than 13,000 non-suicide gun deaths in the United States; in Japan, there was only one.
Japan is the second-largest developed economy in the world and has brought us many innovations, including bullet trains, Pokémon and Blu-ray discs. Maybe one innovation we have overlooked is what it can teach us about a truly well-regulated firearm market.