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In Japan, even the gun enthusiasts welcome restrictions on firearms

Chiaki Sakurai, a sport shooter, prepares his custom-made small bore rifle during target practice at a rifle range in Isehara, Japan. (Anna Fifield/The Washington Post)

Chiaki Sakurai heard a story from his shooting buddies about an American school in Japan.

“I heard that there’s an American school here that has a sign out front saying ‘No guns,’ ” he said incredulously one day this month during a break from target practice at a shooting range. “The school has a sign, even though it’s in Japan!”

It’s not the prohibition that shocked Sakurai, a 56-year-old who has been shooting competitively for three decades, but the idea that such a sign would ever be needed. Why would anyone be carrying a gun at all, let alone into a school?

The story about the sign might be an urban legend, but Sakurai’s astonishment was totally unfeigned.

As news of another U.S. mass shooting reverberates around the world, the Japanese, who live with some of the tightest gun-control laws in the world, are bewildered by the lack of restrictions in the United States.

“In Japan, shooting is strictly regulated, but in the United States it seems like everybody can have a gun,” said Hiroshi Yanagida, 70, who has been shooting for sport for nearly five decades.

“That’s not good,” he added, asking whether it was true that Americans leave loaded guns ­lying around their houses.

Sakurai and Yanagida were among a handful of people practicing at a rifle range in Isehara, southwest of Tokyo, a week after nine people were killed in a shooting at a Charleston, S.C., church.

The people at the range limbered up, doing a variety of stretching exercises, before donning leather shooting jackets that looked like something that might be worn on a motorcycle. Then they lay on their mats to carefully line up their shots, glancing at the computer screens next to them to see how they did.

In Japan, shooting is not something you do to let off steam. People don’t go to their local ranges in T-shirts and jeans to unload a few rounds into an Osama bin Laden target.

Shooting here is a serious sporting activity, like archery or judo, and ranges such as the one in Isehara are run by the Kanagawa prefectural government, much like public swimming pools or basketball courts.

Plus, gun use is regulated in a way that would give Second Amendment defenders heartburn.

Here’s how it works in Japan.

If you want to apply for a permit to shoot and own a gun (there are no rentals), you must first attend a class on gun laws and gun safety, then pass a written test.

Next, submit all of the paperwork — details about your family, work and educational background, and a medical certificate declaring that you’re not depressed or an alcoholic, among other things — to the police, who will check to see if you have a criminal record and look into whether you’ve had any domestic or neighborhood disputes. A police officer will visit your home to see where and how you intend to store your equipment.

Then you must attend a full-day training course where instructors teach basics such as etiquette at shooting ranges, how to handle guns and how to hit a target.

If you pass the shooting test, you can apply for a permit. Once it is issued, you can go buy a gun, then take it to a police station for inspection and registration. Only the registered individual can fire that gun.

The permit is valid for three years. To renew it, a gun owner must enroll in a refresher course and pass a practical test.

Where would you keep your gun? In your gun locker, of course, which regulations stipulate must be affixed to the wall and have three locks on the outside and a metal chain on the inside to run through the trigger guard.

Your ammunition, of course, will be kept in a separate, locked safe, per regulations, and you will probably keep the bolt in yet another safe. This last step is just a recommended one, to make sure the gun is fully disabled, but almost all Japanese gun owners comply.

“This is probably our national character, but people seriously follow the laws and keep their guns and bullets according to the regulations,” said Toshiaki Okazaki, an inspector in the community safety department of the prefectural police in Kanagawa, which includes Isehara.

Okazaki said he had never found a gun owner who was storing his equipment incorrectly. “How they keep guns at home is actually one of the most strictly monitored parts of the process,” he said.

Think such rules sound excessive? People here don’t. In Japan, even the gun enthusiasts are in favor of such restrictions.

“I’m against the idea that everybody can have a gun, and I completely agree with strict gun controls,” Yanagida said.

There is a National Rifle Association in Japan, but its job is to promote sports and register guns as competition-ready, not to advocate on behalf of gun owners.

Some competitive shooters do, however, wish there wasn’t quite so much red tape.

“I wish they could loosen the restrictions a bit,” said Tsunehiro Nakamura, who on a recent day was coaching 10-year-old daughter Sora on shooting a rifle that fires a strobe-light beam rather than bullets.

He showed all of the papers he needs to shoot and own his guns and described how he needed to get a new certification for his air rifle just because he extended the butt slightly.

That the United States has experienced so many mass shootings but no regulations have been changed is particularly puzzling to these Japanese gun owners.

"It's absolutely unacceptable," Yanagida said of Congress's inaction after 26 people, most of them children, were shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. "The politicians are to blame, and the general public as well."

Experts here see a strong link between Japan’s strict gun controls and the lack of gun crime.

In 2013, the latest year for which National Police Agency statistics are available, 12 people were killed by guns, although 10 of the shootings were tied to crime syndicates. That was a big jump over the previous year, when there were only three gun deaths and all had ties to the yakuza, the Japanese mafia.

“We have strict regulations,” said Nobuo Komiya, a professor of criminology at Rissho University in Tokyo. “Even for using guns for sports or wildlife control, the rules get tighter whenever there are incidents and accidents.”

There are a number of factors at play.

For one, gun ownership is rare in Japan, in no small part due to the enormous amount of red tape involved but also because guns are much more expensive here than in the United States.

There were 236,979 guns registered with authorities in 2013, in a country of 127 million people. Compare that with almost one privately owned gun for each of the more than 300 million people in the United States.

Plus, Japan does not have the same kind of pioneering history or frontier mentality that is so closely associated with gun ownership in the United States. Here, guns have been regulated since the mid-1800s.

“Japanese people naturally don’t like to fight. Japan was defeated and nuclear bombs were dropped during World War II, so people are sick of violent solutions,” Komiya said. “Also, because Japan is a homogeneous country, people tend to trust others.”

Sakurai, who owns eight guns for different shooting sports, said people have guns for entirely different reasons in Japan and the United States.

“You should have a reason for having a gun, and if you don’t have a reason, you shouldn’t be allowed to have a gun,” he said while he prepared his rifle for his next round of practice.

Indeed, farther along the range, Yanagida seemed a bit puzzled when asked about using his guns in self-defense: “I never thought about using my guns to protect myself.”

Yuki Oda contributed to this report.

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