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As a Japanese Man Living in America, Gun Violence Is My New Reality

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Tokyo, Japan, I remember watching stories of American gun violence unfold on a television screen with confusion. Japanese news analysts and I had similar questions: Why do so many Americans have guns?
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Stars and stripes on gun
Stars and stripes on gun

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Tokyo, Japan, I remember watching stories of American gun violence unfold on a television screen with confusion. Japanese news analysts and I had similar questions: Why do so many Americans have guns? What are they afraid of? If gun violence is such an issue, why don't Americans do something to control access to them? Since 1992 -- when Japanese exchange student, Yoshihiro Hattori was shot by a Louisiana homeowner because he went into the wrong house for a Halloween party -- many Japanese civilians have found it incomprehensible that Americans continue to endure mass shootings at the mercy of the gun lobby.

Such questions may seem initially naive, but in the context of Japanese attitudes towards guns, they are completely natural. After the death of a Japanese student at the hand of American guns, thousands of Japanese civilians have signed petitions calling for America to model their gun control policies on Japan's.

This seemingly makes sense: Japan has one of the tightest gun control policies in the world. It comes at no surprise that Japan also has one of the lowest firearm ownership rates in the world. As a result, the annual rate of all gun deaths per 100,000 population in 2014 was zero -- a pipe dream in the United States.

This is partly due to Japan's firearm policies as established in it's firearm law. Whereas the American constitution is premised on the idea that all Americans have the right to keep and bear arms, Japan's firearm law explicitly states, "No person shall possess a firearm or firearms or a sword or swords."

Today, most Japanese nationals continue to observe the gun violence in America with confusion and exasperation. Japanese journalist, Akira Ikegami raised some questions about American gun culture when he observed Texan children being taught to shoot firearms in his Toyo Keizai special, "American Gun Culture's malady." Ikegami said, "It's understandable [for Americans] to want to have small-scale guns for self-defense. However, it remains questionable when gun shops are selling larger assault guns. It became painfully aware to me that to accept the fact that everyone has the right to gun ownership is too much and some sort of control is necessary."

These sentiments are widely reflected by Japanese civilians. Shortly after the Sandy Hook mass shooting in 2012, CNN interviewed Japanese citizens of what they thought of America's gun policies. One business man said, "The U.S. is recognized as a modern democracy in the world, but when it comes to guns, it is a barbaric and undeveloped country." Subsequent interviewees echoed each other thoughts that it was "absurd" that normal families and civilians have access to guns and called for stricter gun control in the United States.

I am no longer in Japan watching the news on a television from thousands of miles away.

Since moving to the United States, gun violence has become my reality. My first year in the United States saw both the tragedies of Aurora and Sandy Hook, and these events shattered any sense of safety I had taken for granted from living in a gun-free country.

Fear has seeped its way into every movie theater visit, airplane ride, and university lecture. Every large pop or crack I hear on campus, I duck down in fear. When a balloon pops at the mall, I jump. In fact, San Diego State University, where I am now a student, was the target of a shooting in 1996, when a grad student shot three professors during his master's thesis defense. Just last October, a house roughly two blocks down from my own became the scene of an armed robbery. I used to navigate these spaces with ease in Japan and now, in the United States, gun violence sits at the back of my mind constantly. I am slowly realizing the ways that American gun culture is affecting the way I navigate my day-to-day life.

There is no telling whether or not the Japanese approach to gun control will work in the United States due to significant cultural and political differences between the two countries. Whereas Japanese society views guns as a tool for death, American society views it as protection against death. But, it cannot be denied that there is an injustice in how cyclical gun violence has become in the United States. These events were shocking at first, but even I have realized that the longer I stay in the United States, the less surprised and shocked I am. I believe this is true for Americans and this needs to change on a societal level.

In the words of President Obama, the normalization of these tragedies is a "political choice we make." When we submit to the gun lobby's agenda and remain silent, we are excusing these mass shootings as part of an American reality. The solution does not lie in outright banning guns, but in making access to weapons harder for the general public.

In Japan, in order to buy a gun, an individual must attend an all-day class, pass a written exam, go to the hospital for mental and drug tests and undergo a rigorous background check on criminal activity. Gun owners are subject to annual police inspections of their new firearm and are required to retake the class and exam every three years. These measures seem absurd in an American context, but they are necessary given the reality of gun access. A New York Times analysis found that the guns used by gunmen in 15 recent mass shootings in the United States were bought legally, and at least eight of these gunmen had criminal histories and documented mental health problems.

There is nothing normal about 351 mass shootings in 335 days. There is nothing normal about America's submission to the gun lobby and their ban on gun research. There is nothing normal about a society that accepts that death is a necessary cost of "freedom and liberty."

I remember a time when I lived day-to-day without fear of gun violence. It is a reality that shouldn't be exclusive to Japan. It is a reality that I hope will come true for many Americans.

But, change starts when the status quo is challenged, and Americans need to realize that their current reality is a threat to all the values we hold dear.

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