Civic groups in Yokosuka City, located just over an hour south of Tokyo, are incensed over photos taken at a local U.S. military base. During an “open base” event at Fleet Activities Yokosuka, some area children posed while holding high-powered assault weapons – with the American soldiers allegedly showing them proper firing positions.
“Although it hasn’t been confirmed, it’s safe to say that the weapons weren’t fired or even armed. However, local organizations in Kanagawa Prefecture were upset at the ‘shooting poses’ that the children were taking. The groups claim that such experience is ‘teaching kinds the wrong things.’”
A formal letter of protest was submitted to the commander of the U.S. Navy in Japan, while also requesting comment from Yokosuka Mayor Yuto Yoshida. The U.S. Navy has declined to comment until it can “confirm the facts” about the incident.
Japanese web commenters largely deemed the outcry unnecessary. “I’m so jealous, I want to hold one too!” said one commenter, while another stated “That’s a cool picture. They look like they’re having so much fun. I envy them.”
Some others were more critical, with one person asking “Civic groups are still around? Children, especially boys, like to play with guns. It’s natural.”
Japan has some of the strictest gun laws in the world, with firearms limited mainly to police and Self Defense Force personnel. In a country where gun crimes are almost nonexistent, it is no surprise that the photos may have rubbed some people the wrong way.
“Almost no one in Japan owns a gun. Most kinds are illegal, with onerous restrictions on buying and maintaining the few that are allowed. Even the country's infamous, mafia-like Yakuza tend to forgo guns; the few exceptions tend to become big national news stories,” said The Atlantic.
The Atlantic describes the rigorous process for an ordinary citizen to obtain a firearm (with shotguns and air rifles the only options):
“To get a gun in Japan, first, you have to attend an all-day class and pass a written test, which are held only once per month. You also must take and pass a shooting range class. Then, head over to a hospital for a mental test and drug test, which you'll file with the police. Finally, pass a rigorous background check for any criminal record or association with criminal or extremist groups.”
Although owning a real gun is rare in Japan, “airsoft” replica firearms are extremely common. Airsoft guns, which range from pistols to machine guns, fire brightly-colored plastic BBs. Unlike toy guns in the west, airsoft weapons looks incredibly realistic and lack an orange muzzle. Realistic-looking toy guns are a very common sight at Japanese festivals, often sold in toy booths or won as prizes.
As far as legal regulations in Japan, an airsoft gun cannot fire BBs with muzzle energy of more than 0.98 joules. There are also strict requirements that eliminate any possibility that a replica could be converted to an actual firearm.
“These standards have proven successful within Japan, as it has been found that criminal elements discovered that it is significantly easier to purchase an actual illegal weapon in comparison to modifying a comparatively fragile replica into a functional firearm,” wrote SocomTactical, an international airsoft hobbyist blog.
SocomTactical continued: “Due to this reality, most crimes involving a threat of physical violence are perpetrated with edged weapons, as firearms seen in public are, by default, believed to be toys by the public at large.”
Tension between Japanese communities and their American military neighbors is an ongoing topic in the domestic press. Earlier this year, two U.S. Navy sailors were sentenced to decade-long prison terms for raping a Japanese woman in Okinawa – leading to a nationwide curfew for all military personnel. There have also been ongoing protests over the deployment of tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft, with Japanese communities located near American bases citing safety concerns.
Regardless of the complaints lodged by Kanagawa’s civic groups, it appears that the children had parental consent to pose with the military-grade firearms. In some photos, parents are posing alongside their children or snapping a photo.
“It would seem the parents of the children should have had some idea of what the kids were in store for when they went off to the base. Perhaps these civic groups have deeper issues with the Yokosuka base than this,” said RocketNews24.
A video that shows the photos in question can be viewed on YouTube.