Message to America From Japan: Your Guns Are Not The Problem

The pandemic kept Americans home for a year. Now that they’re venturing out again, the mass shootings have resumed. Last week a gunman killed eight people in Atlanta, Georgia. This week another killed 10 in Boulder, Colorado.

Each of America’s mass shootings sparks a gun rights debate that misses the root of the problem: a culture of violence.

I grew up in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, an hour’s drive from the King Soopers where this week’s shooting took place. My childhood was steeped in America’s rural gun culture. As a boy I shot my own Marlin .22 rifle, mostly at targets but occasionally aiming hollow-point bullets into streams and ponds for the fun of seeing big splashes. I helped my father reload ammunition for other firearms, including .223 rounds for his collection of AR-15 rifles. I attended the University of Colorado at Boulder for four years, one of them while living in its Kittredge dormitories on the south edge of campus, two miles from this week’s shooting.

It was taken as gospel in my family that the solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. The question, “What if nobody had guns?” never came up. Nationally, it probably can’t. Even advocates of gun control push only marginal measures, such as banning assault weapons, but any gun can be used in an assault and so can other weapons.

The problem lurks farther down the chain of events that produces an active shooter. If the only change we made in America was getting rid of guns, would the violence end? If the ingredients that made an active shooter were altered so that he did not want to kill people, would it matter that guns were available? No and no, are my guesses.

From within America, it’s hard to notice the country’s obsession with militaristic conflict, but from a culture that does not share that obsession it becomes blindingly obvious. It pervades every corner of America, hardening into contentiousness and fierce tribalism so ubiquitous that we become accustomed to them and don’t realize that they’re not the default for human society. I didn’t notice the constant conflict in America until moving to Japan almost 19 years ago. Seething gave way to safety. Few people even gesture angrily at other motorists, much less want to kill for killing’s sake.

The ones who do, however, manage to get it done, and this is instructive. American commentators sometimes say that mass shooters would not do as much damage without guns, but Japan’s rare killers have found ways.

In July 2019 an arsonist walked in the front doors of a Kyoto Animation building carrying 11 gallons of gasoline and set the place on fire, killing 36 people and injuring 33 more. The massacre reached a level more horrifying than most of America’s mass shootings, including the August 2019 attack at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas (23 killed, 23 injured); the February 2018 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida (17 killed, 17 injured); and the April 1999 Columbine High School rampage in Columbine, Colorado (15 killed, 24 injured).

The primary driver of mass violence is not the means, but the desire, and the United States produces this desire in great quantities.

Founded by war and engaged in war for much of its history, America has reached the ironic state of needing the right to own guns to protect against the right to own guns. The country lives under a cloud of mutually assured destruction, affirmed by the Supreme Court in its 2010 Heller decision stating that the right to own guns isn’t for national defense but guarding against gun-toting neighbors.

Japan’s massacres by other means suggest that Japanese people could kill each other more frequently and on an American scale if they wanted to, but they don’t. They’re taught in school that maintaining society’s harmony, called wa, is paramount. Children remind their classmates to avoid meiwaku (annoying others) and jama (hindering others).

In America, by contrast, kids are taught an us-and-them worldview. The two primary tribes—let’s call them left and right—are pitted against one another and resort to violence when unhappy. We get riots from the left and riots from the right, each side excusing theirs and condemning the other’s. Small wonder, then, that when I asked a Japanese friend who once lived in California if he was surprised by the many shootings in America, he replied, “No, I’m surprised there aren’t more.”

Maybe this time, in the wake of the Atlanta and Boulder tragedies, we can set aside the Second Amendment impasse to focus elsewhere. The best time to stop a shooter is before he becomes one.

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22 Comments

  1. Scooter
    Posted March 28, 2021 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    Jason, this is a very misleading post. Japan has very strict gun control laws and they have banned handguns. Guns are simply not available to people the way they are to Americans. You are comparing apples to oranges by suggesting Japanese people could kill each other more frequently and on an American scale if they wanted to, but they don’t. There is some truth that education and mindset needs to change, but it needs to be hand in hand with gun control. Gun control vs gun related homocides data for different countries doesn’t lie. No offence, but this post sounds like it was written by someone that had been jaded by the American attitude towards guns.

  2. Rob B.
    Posted March 27, 2021 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Mass shootings in America for you: enraging, stupid and preventable as always.

    Jason, the tribalism you mentioned is something we’re just mired in unfortunately. I’d reach out to old friends who I know are into guns now, but I don’t. Some are active military (like I was) some are just civilians into the culture. I get the lure of the hobby, and I do respect what the 2nd Amendment quite literally says.

    But I don’t reach out to those friends, I am so angry at this happening again, every time. After all the mass deaths from Covid (many preventable if we’d just cared to act smart enough and not argue). After all THOSE deaths and we finally get some hope it’s ok to come outside, and 2 major mass shootings in a week.

    So screw ’em, screw my idiot friends, and the blood they have on their actual voting lever hands. I don’t care. Same never-ending stream of spineless politicians, same zero regard for American life.

    Screw ’em. Ban assault rifles and work your way down. I’ll watch clip after youtube clip of police taking them from your cold whatever-the-quote-is hands.

    -Rob B.

  3. Robert
    Posted March 27, 2021 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    I totally agree with the golden rule analogy after reading the comments.

    I was raised to work hard, be responsible for your actions, pay for what you want, treat others as you would be treated, etc. I am frustrated with the current attitudes in America and many feel the amazing founding of our country is being tarnished and even no longer taught; instead we hear a constant drumbeat about diversity which in this context seems to mean dividing people into groups based on race, gender, political affiliation or any other ‘ism’ so that opposition to bad ideas can be interpreted as racism.

    I have no interest in dividing people along these lines. If we are to be Americans we need that common thread of belief in what makes our country special, our constitution, freedom of religion, speech, etc. Our education system today is severely lacking and our media has taken sides. At least half of our population are referred to as ‘-American’ a further division into groups. I love the diversity of culture, music, food, etc that come along with these different groups but we have lost the moral fiber that holds us together.

    A few years before Trump was elected I sat in Annapolis at a pub with friends and watched the police being told to stand down while rioters tore up the city. I watched what was happening on the West Coast, in Seattle and Portland, and the world watched last summer as $2B+ of damage was done to small businesses and communities across this country during the ‘peaceful’ protests while the media and the Democrats almost encouraged or hid facts when convenient, all with the intention of damaging our duly elected president.

    I do not own a gun, nor do I intend to purchase one but if we do not have a ‘golden rule,’ severely punish those who break our laws, allow people to freely speak their minds without fear of ‘cancel,’ while we leave our borders open, expect people to take care of themselves, treat welfare and out of wedlock children as a bad idea, I am not in favor of any gun reform as our government, education and media have completely failed us in their most basic duties.

    I know little about Japan but am I wrong in assuming they are at least on the same page with regard to treating each other with respect? I’ve always heard there is a respect for elders which we have sadly lost here.

    That’s my two cents. As one member said this is more about investing but had to get that off my chest.

  4. Kevin Brown
    Posted March 27, 2021 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    C’mon back over to the US, Jason!

    You can load up on guns and ammo all you want. It’s gun heaven for bad guys and good guys alike. Mass shootings are just the headline events. I’ll take you to downtown Atlanta where folks shoot at each other just for fun every single day.

    Oh, and you can conceal carry too! (So can the bad guys, oops). This will give you peace of mind knowing that your sure aim and steel nerves will heroically save the day.

    • Posted March 27, 2021 at 6:40 am | Permalink

      Can’t wait, Kevin! You must work for the Atlanta Tourism board.

  5. Kent Lacey
    Posted March 26, 2021 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Jason,

    An odd topic for an investing website?

    In any society today it is the job of the government to set a good example concerning how people should treat each other. Government should lead in being patient, extending good will to all. However, the antics of our state and federal politicians here in the United States are off the charts in being a terrible example for any living person. If our politicians are that conflicted in their behavior how can we expect the citizens to know how to act? Our school teachers don’t want to teach but demand more money, the governor of New York wants a life time job, our president cannot walk, talk, nor remember anything; the federal courts no longer interpret law, but make new laws daily on their own authority. American news programs are pure entertainment and real news coverage takes a back seat. The country has lost its moral fiber.

  6. Robert Seiden
    Posted March 26, 2021 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    One more thing. Correlation does not mean causation and usually there is more than one cause. Also, experiments with human beings are almost impossible to do in order to “prove” causation. So we are stuck with anecdotal evidence, “common sense” and further debate. Read the philosopher Thomas Hobbes if you want to be further discouraged about causation. In the final analysis, life is good when you consider the alternative. I am still hopeful that the future will continue to be good for all of mankind. But science has its limitations and most of the time we must make life choices even though we do not have all the scientific facts or data.

  7. Jan
    Posted March 26, 2021 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    …I’ve been around guns my whole life and I have never seen them misused. Being from the country, I’ve eaten deer, rabbit, and ducks and we always had a loaded gun nearby, in case of some kind of danger. It’s all about the character of the one holding the gun.

    • Robert Seiden
      Posted March 26, 2021 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

      Everyone has a theory about psychology and human nature, including, in this instance, the need for gun control. The gun control debate is often a newer or different version of the old nature or nurture issue. However, both nature and nurture are involved and inextricably connected to each other. Another huge problem for scientists and just ordinary folks in general is that both, all too frequently, cherry-pick the facts. They keep the data that supports their pet theories and ignore or are blind to any data that challenges their pet theories or cherished belief systems.

      Jason, regarding your theory of the nonviolent people of Japan, you may be biased and psychologically blind. Just remember the rape of the citizens of Nanking (China), the unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor (USA) and the savage Bataan (Philippines) death marches during WWII. Oh, I see that was an exception to the rule. No, that was the rule of the Japanese empire at that time. I am still glad we never allowed peace-loving Japan access to build an A-bomb. I think the people of China today would agree with me on this point.

      I personally think that the overall solution to any freedom-loving country is to accept the fact that guns can never be completely outlawed because people always will be able to make their own guns anyway. The ultimate solution is to have better gun control laws and to create better ways to encourage people to make healthier choices in their lives in general and in particular when it comes to the use of guns. Full disclosure: I do not own any guns or assault weapons, do not belong to the NRA and never will.

      • Posted March 27, 2021 at 6:34 am | Permalink

        Japan’s violent past confirms the point I’m making. If Japanese people were somehow exempt from the laws of human nature, their low crime rate in recent decades would be easy to dismiss as a lucky anomaly. The fact that they had to tame the same dark side that every other society deals with makes it impressive and worth studying.

  8. Ri Mi
    Posted March 26, 2021 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Jason, I fear you derailed your argument with the phrase “It was taken as gospel in my family…”

    First, even an atheist knows enough scripture to scratch one’s head at the completely ridiculous notion that the gospels (new testament, Christ teachings) advocated responding to violence/evil with bigger violence. Turn one’s cheek and all that. But second, the inculcation of children with “traditional” philosophies is why the Dred Scott decision stood until Brown v Board of Ed, and even after that the violence and ‘traditional’ perceptions of blacks in America maintained the incipient racism.

    I find the argument that “without guns, bad guys will still kill people… so removing guns are not the solution” to be well beneath your usual level of intelligence. Gosh, there are speed limits on the roads, and yet, people still speed… guess we should just take down all the speed limits. Owning (or even carrying) a bazooka is illegal, but hey, it’s just a gun… no reason to outlaw that.

    In a pandemic that shows catastrophic levels of depression and anxiety and severe challenges to the mental health of the citizenry, is it really so strange to regulate (strictly) or remove the number one tool for killing humans (including by suicide)?

    Are you seriously concerned for how your world would look if assault rifles and handguns were as seriously regulated as a) license to operate a semi and/or b) license to drive a car (respectively)?

    The time for serious gun control was decades ago; with an inherent barrier to owning and acquiring a gun, isn’t it possible that cultural perceptions of using a gun to act out one’s rage against another would similarly return to its formerly ‘shocking’ state.

    I am particularly annoyed at the continued Republican (there I said it) attitude that the interests and preferences of those ‘traditionalists’ who fantasize about their imaginary ‘rugged individualism’, despite representing (at least the true rural denizens) a diminishing (to the point of vanishing) proportion of the US population should somehow carry equal weight to the desire for a gun (assault and handgun at least) free community as expressed by the overwhelming (and increasing) majority of the population who live in metropolitan and suburban areas.

    A pox on you log cabin pretenders. Ah, but then again, I’m not a ‘hunter’ who has thrilled in the ability to stand 100 yards away from an herbivore and deliver death to a sentient being.

  9. Joseph K
    Posted March 26, 2021 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    I agree with some of the posters that gun control can be part of the solution but not the entire solution. It’s difficult to change the culture or DNA of the American culture to one like the Japanese. However, I believe if there’s no gun available, the chance of using it is much less (hence less gun violence) regardless what the person’s upbringing.

  10. Peter Ross
    Posted March 26, 2021 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Jason, I agree with what you say about American aggression. Two points:

    1. Japan had some moments of horrific aggression and violence. Just not towards their own people. This has to be acknowledged. On my two visits to Japan to study shakuhachi I found the people to act as if they were all members of the same family. Very impressive, though I hear it’s changing.

    2. While there’s a way to kill people with simple weapons, many more are killed in minutes with assault weapons. So gun control is not the full solution, but, it can be part of a solution. How to change behavior and human nature is not something easily done.

    It is amazing that while the U.S. has a bit over 4% of the world’s population it has over 40% of the gun murders.

    -peter

    • Posted March 26, 2021 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      Peter,

      Japan’s history of aggression, which does include tribal warfare in its ancient past, contributes to the point I’m making. All people have a dark side. Human nature includes criminal tendencies. That Japan has figured out a way to corral that nature and prevent it from erupting demonstrates that doing so is possible.

      There’s no doubt that its homogeneous population and monoculture are part of the explanation for the country’s low crime rate. You’re right that a familial feeling covers the whole country. Any Japanese person can walk into any other Japanese person’s home and know what’s what and where it belongs. However, this seems irrelevant to a discussion on how to improve America because America will never have a homogeneous population.

      I agree that it’s not easy to change behavior, or a culture.

      Jason

  11. Jan
    Posted March 26, 2021 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Hi, Jason. I think the “wa” in America has been “The Golden Rule.” But now, too many are following their own selfish ways and, as a result, immorality and violence are becoming the norm. We cannot maintain a civil society if we do not have a people that have humility and accountability to a higher authority than themselves…and for me, that would be the All Mighty God of the Bible.

    • Posted March 26, 2021 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      Yes, I think the Golden Rule corresponds with Japan’s wa.

  12. Toni Borrett
    Posted March 26, 2021 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Hi Jason, I’m in Australia and as you are probably aware many years ago after a mass shooting, guns were banned here. We have had no mass shootings since. An Australian did however, kill a lot of people in New Zealand. Assault weapons are the problem, no civilian needs a weapon that can kill many people at once. With a single shot weapon, there would be more chance for a ‘good guy’ to overwhelm the shooter. I agree with your point about the us and them culture, Australia has also headed down that path, especially with our current government. Regards, Toni

    • Posted March 26, 2021 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      Thank you, Toni.

      In America, handguns lead the list of firearms used in killings, and suicides lead the list of types of killings. Mass shootings account for only 1-2% of killings, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

      In light of these facts, the call for a ban on assault weapons–which typically follows a mass shooting–looks off the mark for reducing general gun violence. It may be one way to reduce mass shootings, however, as Australia’s experience demonstrates.

      But the point of my article is that even if we took away America’s guns without altering its culture of violence, we would just shift the means of mass killing. Maybe they wouldn’t happen by shooting anymore, but they would probably still happen.

      Jason

      • Scooter
        Posted March 29, 2021 at 12:00 am | Permalink

        Disagree Jason. The data does not support your argument. Spend 5 mins on google and look up homicide vs gun control data in other countries.

  13. Steve
    Posted March 26, 2021 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Disappointed to read your commentary on gun violence. I don’t read your comments to learn about your social views but, rather, to try to gain some investing insights. That’s why I bought your book. Much like professional athletes and Hollywood types, you should spare us your views of the world.

  14. mary dean
    Posted March 26, 2021 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Jason,

    I love your letter and appreciate your level headed advice during this past year.

    Regarding your recent email, thanks for this interesting commentary. I do want to correct misinformation in your email.

    The Virginia Tech shooting stats were close to the ones you cited with the fire in Japan — 33 killed with 17 injured directly from the shooter. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Tech_shooting

    neVer forgeT (VTech)

    thanks,

    • Posted March 26, 2021 at 8:24 am | Permalink

      True, Mary, and there are other mass shootings in America bigger than the ones I cited, the most prominent being the October 2017 Las Vegas shooting, with 61 killed and 411 injured.

      My intent is not to highlight the worst examples, but to show that when a person decides to kill, they can find a way to do so.



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