Japan and the Mean World Syndrome

Recently, I watched the documentary “Mean World Syndrome,” which basically argues that media obsession with crime and violence (both in news and movies) has lead to a general sense that the world is a much more dangerous place than it really is. People feel that crime is more likely to happen to them, even when crime rates are falling. This “mean world syndrome” can be found pretty much everywhere, and now that I look back on it, I can relate the “mean world syndrome” to my experiences in Japan.

Japan is a pretty safe country compared to the United States. Japan’s population is something in the ballpark of 40% of the United State’s population, but the crime rates are vastly different. The United States has something like 10,000,000 reported crimes a year, compared to Japan’s 1,300,000 crimes per year. Even adjusted for population, the USA has nearly 300% more crime per-capita than Japan.

As a reference point, I’ll compare my own American parents with my Japanese host parents during my stay in Japan. Even with the USA’s comparatively high crime rate, my parents rarely lock the front door when they go out during the day. My Japanese host parents, however, were religious about locking their doors, windows, cars, and bicycles every single day. Unused to constantly-locked doors, I found myself locked out of the house on many occasions. When I asked my host parents about it, they said that somebody with a knife could break in during the night and kill them in their sleep, so they lock even their windows. (Knife attacks are the stereotypical violent crimes in Japan, because firearms are super-illegal, and highly-controlled). When they were out, they were afraid that homeless people might break in and steal – or take up secret residence in their house. They’d also worry about me constantly – usually voicing concern that I would get attacked by somebody with a knife while wandering Osaka late at night. I reminded them of the crime rate in Japan, and they immediately agreed that Japan was a safe place.

What’s the problem? Why be so afraid when you KNOW that you’re safe? I understand that my host parents might be outlying opinions in Japan, but I’m sure their paranoia isn’t entirely unique. I think the source for this mentality lies with media publicity for violent crime in Japan. Since it’s so rare, it makes major news when it happens. I think in my 4+ months in Japan, I heard about one violent crime on the television: a nonfatal stabbing. But it was all over the news. It’s very possible that these rare, but highly-publicized crimes have a strong effect on Japanese people, who feel that crime is a major problem for them because it’s such major news.