Contrary to popular belief, the number of juvenile offenders and cases in Japan has decreased significantly in recent years. In an interview with Ms Yoshiko Ohmachi, a Family Court probation officer for the Supreme Court of Japan, Stacey Steele explores the reasons behind the decline.
SS: Ohmachi san, thank you for visiting the Melbourne Law School during your time as a visiting research scholar at the Australian National University.
YO: Thank you. I’ve visited Melbourne four times since arriving in Australia in June 2015. I’m grateful to institutions such as the Australian National University, Melbourne Law School, the Family Court of Australia, Youth Justice and Relationships Victoria for their hospitality and intellectual exchange.
SS: I’ve heard that Japanese people think that juvenile crime is increasing in Japan. Is that really the case?
YO: It’s a complicated situation, but actually juvenile offending is decreasing. If we exclude traffic offences and certain special criminal statutes, only 0.68 per cent of the young population committed a crime in 2014. Unfortunately, however, 78.6 per cent of respondents answered that the number of young offenders is increasing, according to a Japanese Cabinet Office survey in 2015. Only 2.5 per cent of respondents answered correctly: that is, the number of young offenders in Japan is actually decreasing.
SS: During my research for an article about increasing elderly crime in Japan, I found that the increase in elderly offending was not proportional to the increasing number of Japanese elderly. Do you think that the lower offending rates just reflect the smaller number of young people in Japan?
YO: I have heard some people argue that the decreasing number of young offenders is just because of the decreasing number of younger people in Japan. But the statistics don’t support this view.
SS: So, what do the statistics tell us about decreasing juvenile offending in Japan?
YO: The National Police Agency and Ministry of Justice collect statistics on criminal justice in Japan. Let’s take the National Police Agency’s comparison of juvenile offending between 2007 and 2014 as an example (see Figure 1). The number of young people aged between 14 and 19 years old in Japan declined by 4 per cent during that period, but the number of first-time young offenders decreased by 56 per cent and the number of second-time offenders decreased by 46 per cent.
Figure 1: Juvenile offending in Japan excluding traffic offences and certain special criminal offences (National Police Agency statistics)
|Juveniles arrested (% of the number in 2007)
|Juveniles arrested for the first time (% of the number in 2007)
|Juveniles arrested who have already been convicted of an earlier offence (repeat offenders) (% of the number in 2007)
|Japanese population aged between 14 and 19 (% of the number in 2007)
SS: These are huge decreases in less than a decade. Why do you think people have the impression that juvenile crime is getting worse, when the statistics show that’s not the case?
YO: Well, one of the reasons may be the sensational media coverage of a few, but shocking, crimes. Public opinion drove amendments to the Juvenile Act in 2000 and 2007 which made it more punitive. In Japanese, we call this genbatsuka (becoming punitive). It seems that society is less tolerant of a young person’s mistakes these days.
SS: Do you think the more punitive nature of the Juvenile Act has deterred offenders?
YO: It’s difficult to say, and I think the causes of the declining offending rate are complex. It is possible that the contemporary atmosphere of less tolerance might lead some young people to exercise more self-control. But for a juvenile in a high risk category, genbatsuka may not even be on the juvenile’s radar at all, and may result in preventing the juvenile from obtaining appropriate treatment and help. If this is the case, genbatsuka may be one of the reasons that the rate of decline in reoffending is less than the rate of decline in juveniles committing a first offence.
SS: What has been the impact of declining offending on the Family Court?
YO: We’re also seeing fewer juvenile cases. The Family Court dealt with approximately 107,000 cases in 2014, which was the lowest number in three decades and half the figure compared to seven years ago. Of the cases sent to the Family Court in 2014, the most common offense was still theft (about 42,000 cases), mostly involving shoplifting or bicycle theft. The second and third most common type of offences related to traffic violations and negligent driving. Interestingly, the number of serious offences has also been decreasing, despite the community’s perception and media reporting.
I think that the high rate of minor cases dealt with by the Family Court also reflects our jurisdictional rules. All cases involving a young person who is suspected of being guilty must be sent to the Family Court. Once a juvenile is charged, the investigating authority doesn’t have discretion to defer prosecution or not to proceed with prosecution. We call this zenken sōchi shugi (全件送致主義). As a result, we see cases in the court for shoplifting amounting to just several dollars and minor traffic violations. The high rate of theft offences also reflects a trend for Japanese crime across all demographics. Seventy per cent of offences overall relate to theft, and the rate of serious crime is low overall.
SS: Given that a large number of the cases in the Family Court relate to minor offences such as shoplifting and bicycle theft, could the decline in juvenile cases relate to reluctance by police to prosecute offenders for such minor offences?
YO: Yes, it’s possible. I’ve read that because a large amount of young person offences are minor like shoplifting and bicycle theft, the level of offending is affected by how hard police investigate and prosecute such minor crimes. Policing polices can have an effect on offending rates. Police in Japan today provide supportive services like consultation for the young person and their parents, and education support. So-called ‘initial crime’ (shohatsu gata hikō or 初発型非行) such as shoplifting and vehicle theft, which is said to be a gateway into further criminal behavior, declined by 60 per cent from 2007 to 2014; its rate of decline was the fastest compared to any other type of crime. Given the large number of cases categorised as initial crime, its sharp decline seems to directly affect the overall rate of decline of young offenders.
SS: It sounds like there are many reasons for the declining rate of young offenders in Japan …
YO: Yes. And Japan is not alone in facing these issues. In the United States where juvenile crime is also on the decline, for example, the reasons and consequences are also debated. It might also be wishful thinking on my part and contrary to general public opinion, but I suspect that Japanese young people may not actually be that ‘bad’. Researchers have shown that Japanese offenders score quite low on a particular risk assessment tool, the Youth Level of Service/Case Management Inventory. The mean score for young people who were sent to a detention centre in Japan is 10.75 out of 42. In comparison, the mean scores in America are from 16.30 to 33.73 according to North American studies. The mean score of the category of substance abuse in the Japanese survey was also quite low at 0.07. Accordingly, currently in Japan the risk level of the average young offender itself is not so high and is perhaps reflected in the high number of minor crimes committed by young people in Japan.
SS: Finally and on a personal note, what is the biggest challenge in your role as a Family Court probation officer from your perspective?
YO: To be honest, I find dealing with parents the most challenging part of my role. I’m sometimes disappointed by the attitude of the juvenile offenders’ parents, but it’s my role to help them and their children to understand each other for the benefit of the child.
This interview reflects the personal opinions of the interviewer and interviewee. Statements do not represent the views or policies of our employers, past or present, or any other organisation with which we are affiliated.
Stacey Steele is Associate Director (Japan) at the Asian Law Centre and associate professor at the Melbourne Law School.
Ms Yoshiko Ohmachi is a visiting research scholar at the Australian National University.
Juvenile offences in Japan are decreasing dramatically, despite public perceptions to the contrary. Photo: Neekoh.fi, Flickr