Gun violenceExplosive Violence Monitor report translations

Shinzo Abe’s assassination and firearm control in Japan

In response to the tragic news of the fatal shooting of the ex-PM of Japan, Shinzo Abe, AOAV outlines a brief history of Japan’s relationships to guns and its strict approach to gun control.

First it should be noted that there is a very low firearm homicide rate in Japan. In 2017, there were 14,532 homicides by firearm in America, but just 1 in Japan .[1]

In 2018 (the latest figures published by WHO), the total number of people killed by guns in Japan – including accidents and suicides – was 9.[2] In the US it was 39,740.

Abe’s murder is an absolute aberration in a country with a very low firearm death rate of just 0.01 per hundred thousand and a homicide rate of even lower.[3]

The shooting and killing of a major politician is a rare enough event globally – for this to happen in Japan will be almost incomprehensible to many people living there.

But how are such low gun death numbers explained? To answer, we have to look at Japan’s history of gun control.[4] 

The first gun control measure in Japan can be traced back to 1588, where the ruler of Japan, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, announced the Sword Hunt, which banned possession of swords and firearms by civilians. From the 1600s to the 1800s, a number of decrees were passed trying to address the spread of guns that had occurred ever since Western traders and missionaries had alighted on Japan’s shores. For example, in 1685, people who gave information on firearms would be rewarded. By the late 19th century in Japan, guns were effectively limited to hunters and in 1910, the manufacture and sales of guns and explosives were subject to government license.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the government introduced an Imperial Ordinance which banned the possession of firearms and swords by citizens (although hunting guns were allowed under license). The Imperial Ordinance was then replaced by the Law Controlling the Possession of Firearms and Swords in 1958, which is still in effect today, subject to some amendments.[5] 

With such an entrenched tradition of gun control, trying to buy a gun is difficult, as Dave Kopel set out in his 1993 study[6] on Japanese gun control. Prospective gun owners have to attend classes and pass a written test, then its off to the shooting range, and then to the hospital for a medical test to detect mental illnesses as well as a drug test. The police then investigate the prospective gun owner’s background, including their relatives’ backgrounds.

The police also have the discretion to deny licenses if there are reasonable grounds to suspect a prospective gun owner may endanger the lives of others.

All of this means Japan is very much a country where the gun is the exception, not the rule.  It should also be noted that homicides themselves are rare in Japan.  In 2018, there were just 334 homicides in the country – a rate of 0.26 per 100,000.[7]

As of 2019, the total number of guns kept by civilians (illicit and licit) was 310,400 (in that year, the Japanese population was around 126 million).[8] This has dropped from 710,000 in 2007.[9]

According to the law, you cannot possess a gun if you have declared bankruptcy. The minimum age limit to own a gun is 18, however a gun athlete who is over 14 may be excepted. It was reported that the Japanese government lowered age restrictions on air guns, so that athletes could begin training earlier for shooting events at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic and Paralympic games.[10]    

Kopel, a member of the National Rifle Association, has noted that “the Japanese police are given broad search and seizure powers”. He observed that “because the police are so esteemed, the Japanese people co-operate with their police more than Americans do. Co-operation with the police also extends to obeying the laws that almost everyone believes in. The Japanese people, and even the large majority of Japanese criminals, voluntarily obey the gun controls.”

Kopel then added that their legal system is “omnipotent and unitary state authority”.

An example of where the police could be seen as acting forthright in terms of guns can be found in an article[11] by investigative journalist Jake Adelstein. In an interview with a detective from the Kanto region they recounted the following anecdote:  

A few years ago, an officer on duty used his gun to kill himself — clearly non-designated usage, so that’s a crime.” He was charged posthumously to publicly show that even the dead can’t get away with breaking the firearms laws, and to shame his family. It may seem like overkill but it drives home the point.”

With stringent measures and a decline in gun ownership, it’s not surprising that there is a low rate of homicides by firearm. Unlike America in recent times, Japan has not seen many massacres that involve guns.

High profile massacres have tended to involve bladed weapons, such as the Akihabara massacre[12] in 2008, the Osaka School Massacre[13] in 2001, and the Shimonoseki Station massacre[14] in 1999.     

With its long tradition of gun control measures, and low homicides by firearm rates, this shooting will then not only rock Japan because of the high profile of the victim, but also because of the rarity of the event.

AOAV’s thoughts are with Mr Abe’s family and those impacted by this terrible murder.


For more, please read this report by the author the assassination and gun control in Japan in Byline Times

This was followed up by an interview on CBS news.

AOAV’s commentary on the assassination was also covered widely globally, including:




[4] Library of Congress, ‘Firearms-Control Legislation and Policy: Japan’,

[5] Library of Congress, ‘Firearms-Control Legislation and Policy: Japan’,

[6] David Kopel, ‘Japanese Gun Control’ (1993) Asia Pacific Law Review  

[7] UNODC.2020.‘Intentional Homicide Victims.’ dataUNODC.Vienna:United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime,1 January. (Q13355)

[8] Japan.2020.‘Changes in the number of guns, swords and swords that have been licensed (2015-2019).’ Reiwa 2 (2020) Police White Paper Statistical Data.Tokyo:National Police Agency,1 January. (Q14336

[9] Karp, Aaron.2007.‘Completing the Count: Civilian firearms – Annexe online.’ Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns and the City.Cambridge:Cambridge University Press,27 August

[10] The Japan News, ‘Govt eyes lower age limit on air guns’, 4th January 2014,  

[11] The Japan Times, ‘Even gangsters live in fear of Japan’s gun laws’, 6 January 2013

[12] The Japan Times, ‘Kato sorry for Akihabara massacre’, 29th January 2010

[13] BBC, ‘Pupils die in Japan knife massacre’, 8th June 2001

[14] The Japan Times, ‘Shimonoseki mass killer’s death penalty stands’, 12th July 2008