Suddenly, 3 days of street violence unnerve a proudly peaceful Japan TV news broadcasts chases and killings

July 11, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- After years of fretting that handguns were making inroads into a proudly gun-free society, Japanese have spent three chilling days watching real-life cops and killers take over their TV screens.

In 42 unprecedented hours of unrelated handgun crimes, a drug-addled cop-killer, a serial revenge killer, a gangland yakuza shooting and a bungled holdup at a pachinko pinball prize center have left a policeman and three businessmen dead, a policeman and four civilians wounded and a society of 140 million people deeply shaken.

Three days filled with two big-city car chases, a 1,400-officer manhunt, two hostage holdouts, closed schools, rerouted buses, terrified neighborhoods and guns-drawn arrest scenes might well have looked like the same old stuff on TV newscasts in many a big American city.

But Japanese have long been proud of streets so safe that respectable women confidently walk home alone long after midnight. No comparable 42-hour handgun crime wave has ever been recorded.

To millions of Japanese, travelers' tales of what American TV news looks like are part of the reason much of this country has spent the last three days asking whether even the most-prized part of Japan's self-picture may be giving way to foreign influences.

"A secure Japanese society has been contributed to by strict controls on firearms and drugs, but that is changing now," lamented Ryoichi Suzuki, the country's top police officer.

Once the preserve of Japan's strutting, tattooed yakuza gangsters, illegal handguns have been spreading for several years into the possession of right-wing fanatics, small-business operators, drug addicts and a variety of other owners, police statistics show.

"The number of guns illegally imported has grown to thousands a year, and the smugglers have become steadily more skillful and sophisticated," the Yomiuri newspaper said.

Official police estimates are that about 90,000 illegal handguns are in private hands in Japan. That would be about one for each yakuza gangster. Academics believe that estimate, and most reported crime statistics here are far lower than the reality, though no one suggests that any of the figures would rival those of far more gun-laden and violent U.S. cities.

Japan had had a brief handgun scare in May, when a speaker's stand saved Shin Kanemaru, a leading kingmaker of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, from a right-wing assassin's bullet.

The wave began just after 4 p.m. Wednesday, when 25 policemen surrounded a hotel in a suburb north of Tokyo to arrest a 23-year-old drug abuser who was accused of using a knife in a robbery.

He escaped in a stolen van after surprising the policemen with gunfire that killed one officer by catching him in the side, an area unprotected by his bulletproof vest, sent another to the hospital with a leg wound and just missed injuring a third when the bullet clanged off his riot shield.

Twenty hours, two car chases, a 1,400-officer manhunt and two hostage-takings later, the police brought in scores of guns for a Thursday lunchtime confrontation at the home of an elderly couple the addict was holding as hostages.

"It was a mistake that none of the officers were armed with a gun" at the hotel, Mr. Suzuki, commissioner-general of the National Police Agency, conceded after the lunchtime siege ended with the addict's surrender and no additional shootings.

The dead officer was the seventh policeman killed by gunfire here in 10 years -- about as many as were killed by guns in an average month in the United States over 10 years.

Barely 20 hours after the siege ended, a tiling subcontractor went on a rampage in western Japan.

Moving unchallenged from one rival businessman's home to another's office, then to a construction site and then to another office, the subcontractor succeeded in systematically shooting four men he accused of "stealing my work."

Three of his victims were dead by last night, and the fourth was seriously injured. He surrendered once police caught up with him.

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