Crime In Japan: A Psychological Perspective

Authors: Laura Bui & David P. Farrington
Publisher: Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. 246p.
Reviewer: Tom Ellis | November 2020 

This is a book whose time has come, both as a corrective to the often dominant sociological bias in English speaking (and reading) Criminology, and in attempting to address comparative research paradigms. Some chapters, especially chapters 6, 7 and 8, can be used as excellent introductory texts that incorporate Japanese criminological research, theories, etc. to the western criminological narrative. It is a bold first step. The authors should be commended for taking the hardest step. Inevitably, reviewers will find some missteps, but these are grist to the mill for a second edition, which should definitely follow in building on this framework. It will have a wide appeal, from undergraduate teaching, to academic criminologists who are researching Japan, or any of the subject topics, for the first time.

Chapter 1 sets the boundaries of the book’s wide scope. It establishes the preoccupations of western interest in Japan, Japan’s apparent low crime rate, and the dangers of orientalism and ethnocentrism in accepting stereotypical explanations. It ends with a basic introduction to Psychological Criminology as it relates to developments in the UK and finally, indications of Japanese psychological criminology’s contributions to the general corpus of knowledge.

Chapter 2 urges scepticism about easy cultural explanations, and/or reliance on individualism-collectivism, for the low incidence of interpersonal crimes. It also provides a good representation of Japanese authors. To continue this theme, it would have been worth a note here on the types of crime that are not low in Japan, eg, why is Japan ranked only 20th in the Corruption Perception Index, below many advanced European economies (UK included), Singapore and Hong Kong, and just above USA?

It is also disappointing, especially for readers new to the area, that Nelken’s work is referred to only in passing (p.28) and that there is a reliance only on Karstedt’s more limited approach to defining the comparative criminological project. That critical meta view of the comparative agenda establishes a clear framework of positivism, relativism, and Nelken’s separation of interpretivism from the latter. This would enable the reader to make much more sense of the different approaches (and levels of analysis) the authors include in the Can Culture Explain Crime in Japan section. Indeed, Nelken’s development of interpretivism appears to be where the authors are aiming, although somewhat implicitly.

Chapter 3, Life Course, most obviously benefits from Farrington’s long experience and expertise. It is a useful key into the area of both psychological Developmental and Life Course Criminology (DLC) and sociological Life Course Criminology/Desistence (LCC), including the contested overlaps (reprised effectively in Chapter 4).

I was a little disappointed by the lack of detail included from some studies referred to (eg, on p.160, did Fazel and Yu, 2011, include Japan and/or East Asian Countries?) and also the lack of basic graphics, to help avoid a level of text blindness. This makes for an incomplete read in places, particularly in the short discussion of the ‘Age-Crime Curve’ section. First, the reader knows little about the offending trends context until the end of the chapter, and then only in very brief, general terms. Second, the Age-Crime Curve section (pp. 60-62) and the last paragraph missed the chance to develop a key thread – is the peak-age-crime relationship as law like in Japan as Gottfredson and Hirschi would suggest? Examples only from Western nations, such as Canada, were used in the chapter, but nothing from neighbouring East Asian countries such as S. Korea, Hong Kong, etc. which might show a very different peak age of offending (see Ellis and Hamai, 2017 on Japan; Steffensmeier, 2017 on Taiwan and 2019 on S. Korea).

Chapter 4, Family, outlines another area with which the authors are well versed. It gives a good grasp of the main family-related crime issues and representation of Japanese sources. There are some notable glitches though. The Family Violence section is too brief and rather dated, underplaying later advances. Ellis & Hamai (2017) note the steps taken to combat intimate‐partner violence with a series of laws, eg: the Act on the Prevention of Spousal Violence and Protection of Victims, 2001; the 2007 amendment of the Violence Prevention Law; and the associated Cabinet Office Survey on Violence between Men and Women, now carried out every 3 years.

I was also surprised that hikikomori was absent in this chapter. A well-known, perhaps specifically Japanese phenomenon, it is a type of acute social withdrawal, often starting in adolescence in the parental home, and sometimes associated with abuse of and/or by parents (see This social and psychological phenomenon can overlap with tokokyohi (school refusal), which, in contrast, has good coverage in Chapter 6 on Schools.

I struggled most with Chapter 5, Youth, perhaps because I know more about the topic. It does warm up once the reader arrives at the Understanding Serious Youth Violence section (p.115). This seems to be where the authors are more comfortable. My unease started with the second sentence of the Preface (p.v), which surprised me in stressing “….a higher level of violence among Japanese males compared to that of young American males”. This seems overstated, given the sources: (Bui’s own 2014 research on 800 youths, in the Osaka and Seattle), and the lack of analysis of up-to-date crime trends/graphics evidencing that peak age of offending in East Asia may make comparison of 2 youth cohorts less efficacious (see for instance (Steffensmeier 2017; 2019 on Taiwan; Ellis and Hamai 2017 on Japan).

The early pages raise concern about stereotypical links between rising crime and youth, but they are weak on the stressing the huge reduction in youth crime trends and also argue that youth crime is no longer “regarded as a pressing social problem” (p.109). These counter currents do not receive critical analysis. The very brief acknowledgement of the enormous drop in juvenile crime (p.110) needed to be expanded on in terms of types of crime and gender, etc. This all leads to an unconvincing section on ‘Why Is Youth Crime an Issue? which seems to ignore up-to-date trends. There is also no synopsis of the Kobe murders case referred to (p.113). Publication lag notwithstanding, some of the sources are also mystifyingly dated (eg, p.p.109-110: Lewis et al, 2009; Oka 2009) given that citations used elsewhere (eg Ellis and Kyo, 2017) provide a later, in depth analysis. An explicit treatment of Maeda’s argument that Japanese juveniles should be celebrated for their low level of offending, rather than being subject to unjustified media and governmental concern, would also have made for a stronger, more explicit platform.

Other key statements are made with no sources to follow up, eg, that the juvenile crime rate in Japan is “lower than in other countries”, but without citing the evidence that S. Korea, Hong Kong, China, Macao and even Taiwan all have a very low rates in the same region.

The logic of the narrative sometimes seems fuzzy. Okabe’s 2016 findings that 90% of criminal Juvenile offences are categorised as brutal, violent, or….theft are used to signal the later focus on serious youth crime. Yet theft was, unsurprisingly most common, at 60% and it is acknowledged that brutal crimes had declined since the early 1960s. In other words, most youth offending is not brutal (or violent?), yet the emphasis on this type of crime remains paramount in where the reader is guided. It is crucial for the reader to know that from the 1970s, juveniles have committed only around 5 percent of homicides, in contrast, to all other age groupings now committing between 17% and 22% (see Ellis and Hamai, 2017), and that other key serious offences have plummeted for juveniles since 1998. This gives a very different platform from which to judge the results of the self-report studies and the need to address serious youth crime later in the in the chapter.

It is also not always clear which age group comparisons are being made. The figures cited (p.113) that 14-19 year old juveniles commit most non-traffic offences “compared with any other age group” needs to be checked by locating the 2009 source to ascertain if this is within youth age categories only, or all age group categories. In the same place, the western age-crime curve is also cited, without considering that this appears not to fit Japan’s or East Asia’s profile (Ellis and Hamai, 2017; Steffensmeier, 2017, 2019).

Chapter 6 is an excellent introduction to the relationship between School and offending. A staple of DLC and of sociology, this is not so well represented in criminology more generally, so it is a welcome and necessary inclusion here. It treads a good line between the application of existing western studies’ findings, and the difference in emphasis in Japan (with the exception of the Self–Control as Personality section). It leaves the reader to make up their own minds about the sociological arguments and is more detailed and directive on the psychological evidence, which is expected, given the focus of the book.

Chapters 7 (Mental Disorders) and 8 (Biosocial Interactions) have similar strengths to the School chapter. The Biosocial chapter will perhaps have some sociological criminologists spitting into their epistemological soup, but it is a valuable update to an area that tends to be covered only negatively and historically in introductory criminological theory classes and texts. Chapter 8 is an accessible update that incorporates good sources for further reading and the excellent section on Psychopathy is perhaps the best in the book in terms of comparative studies and the contribution that Japan makes to established western narratives.

Some important, emerging areas are left hanging in these chapters however. The sentence on video gaming included at the end of the Prevalence of Mental Disorders section (Chapter 7, p.162) does not provide sources for further reading. Yet there is good research evidence that video gaming: has a pro-social/cathartic effect; a bigger incapacitating effect in removing potential (especially young) offenders from public involvement in violence; and is different in Japan, where it tends to take place in family settings and is more likely to in involve Japanese Role Play games (JRPG) rather than their hack and slash as western equivalents (see Ellis and Kyo, 2017). This topic either needed expanding or deleting here.

For me, the first pages of the concluding chapter actually do a better job of making the sociology/psychology nexus of the book’s approach much clearer than the Preface and introductory chapter. It is much clearer that only these 2 disciplines to be covered with a view to integration. The representation of sociological approaches here still carries an undertone that all sociological studies rely on non-empirical, unscientific, cultural arguments, described as essentialist (a term that is not explained, p.217). It feels simplistic and does not reflect some of the work by key authors such as Steinhoff, and Johnson (who are cited in the book) and who have carried out both qualitative and quantitative research on Japan, or Steffensmeier (who is not referred to) who has examined East Asian offending in a way that accounts for ‘culture’ and statistical (scientific?) analysis. I would reiterate here that locating this meta argument within a positivist/relativist/interpretivist framework would have enabled a stronger argument about the combining of theory and data (see p.218) in comparative criminology and developing an inclusive criminology (pp. 220 et seq).

On a final note, more consistency with Japanese terms, within and between chapters, is important. ‘Compensated dating’ (enjo kosai) and ‘it’s me’ (ore ore) are not transliterated, while ijime (bullying) and tokokyohi are (though not consistently italicised). Translations are usually approximate and it is important to incorporate all local language terms to add to the criminological lexicon (and the indexing).

Overall, the authors have provided an important addition to the canon of comparative criminology. It is inevitably stronger on the more clearly defined psychological elements, and weaker on the supra psychological context in which those occur. The reader would need to access key sources on this first, to maximise the value of this book. But it merits the effort.


Ellis, T & Hamai, K 2017, Homicide in Japan. In F Brookman, ER Maguire & M Maguire (eds), International Handbook on Homicide. Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken NJ/Oxford, pp. 388-411. <>

Ellis, T., & Kyo, A. (2017). Youth justice in Japan. In M. Tonry (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Crime and Criminal Justice Online Oxford University Press.

Hasegawa, M. (2005) Homicide by men in Japan and its relationship to age, resources, and risk‐taking. Evolution and Human Behavior, 26: 332–343.

Johnson, D. T. (2006). “The Vanishing Killer: Japan’s Postwar Homicide Decline.” Social Science Japan Journal 9(1): 73–90.

Maeda, M. (2003) Nihon no Chian wa Saisei Dekiru ka (Can Japan revive public order)? Tokyo: Chikuma Shinsho.

Steffensmeier, D., Lu, Y. & Na, C. (2019) Age and Crime in South Korea: Cross-National Challenge to Invariance Thesis, Justice Quarterly, 10.1080/07418825.2018.1550208, (1-26), (2019).

Steffensmeier, D., Zhong, H. & Lu, Y. (2017) Age and its relation to crime in Taiwan and the United States: Invariant, or does cultural context matter? Criminology, Vol. 55, Issue 2 (377-404)

White, P. (1995) Homicide. In M.A. Walker (eds), Interpreting Crime Statistics (pp, 130–144). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tom Ellis (Principle Lecturer in Comparative Criminal Justice), Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, University of Portsmouth, UK

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