I’m sure there’s another mass shooting in America recently that would make this essay “topical”, but I’ve been sitting on this piece for years. A flurry of news stories always follows each incident of mass gun violence in the United States—profiles of the survivors, the victims, the shooter, and the first responders. The community responds to the tragedy. The determined pockets of citizenry vow never to let this sort of thing happen again. The right-wingers parrot their worn refrain that people kill people, not guns (never mind how guns were designed for the explicit purpose of ending lives and used accordingly). The Onion republishing the same satirical article they’ve run for years, word-for-word.
Then the chorus of mourning quiets on social media. Reformative gun legislation stalls, though every functional democracy has some law America could use as a blueprint. America even has an internal model: the government response to the 1982 Tylenol murders shows this country can respond effectively to violence that imperils public health. Yet this, and all other sensible methods, go unused.
Before long, another decides to shoot up a mall or school or concert or house of worship, and the procession repeats anew.
Therefore I’ve been slow to write this. How does one summon the motivation to string words into a meaningful order when they read about the most recent deaths and the people left to mourn them? Meanwhile, the latest tragedy recedes from our minds. It grows less timely, less topical; less likely to make for a successful pitch. And so this article simmers on the back burner, furious at its own future relevance.
In Japan, one of those functional democracies with effective gun legislation, the barriers to gun ownership are well-documented – and are nothing like the permissive laws of the United States. It takes four months to acquire a gun in Japan if you want one. Even then, nearly all forms of guns are prohibited; hunting rifles and shotguns alone are permitted for civilian use, and only after rigorous vetting. Bullets cannot be purchased unless you return the spent shells of the ammunition you seek to replace. Handguns are forbidden except in special testing environments. Even the act of discharging a firearm is unlawful in most circumstances, carrying a penalty of imprisonment.
These restrictive policies yield their intended results. In 2017, only three gun fatalities were reported in the entire country for the year. Comparable fatality estimates for the United States are harder to ascertain. The National Rifle Association successfully lobbied to prohibit the CDC from advocating or promoting gun control in 1996. The prohibition has been renewed every year since, along with funding restrictions preventing the CDC and its parent agency HHS from researching gun violence.
The stark differences in gun culture and legality between Japan and the US suggest that Americans can learn a thing or two from the Japanese’ relationship with guns. Whether theirs is a model to emulate or not, they have a way of considering the problem of shootings that we don’t. This alone is enough to justify looking into their commentary on the matter.
In this regard, award-winning writer Fuminori Nakamura offers a powerful contribution to the discourse on gun violence. His debut novel, The Gun (originally published in 2002 in Japan, later translated to English by Allison Markin Powell), confronts the problem directly, documenting the efforts of a college student to conceal – and use – a gun he steals from a crime scene. Nakamura’s insight in The Gun is to pick apart the mental and physical machinery of a potential shooter and to put him back together again, piece by piece, to identify the fatal components.
For Nakamura, the usual cultural bogeymen play their parts. Misogyny, media, and mental illness are all correlative with violence. Yet there is only one cause, only one ingredient, that turns them into murder: gun possession.
In The Gun, college student Toru Nishikawa stumbles upon a dead body during a rainstorm. He finds a loaded handgun near the body, claiming it for himself. “I didn’t have much interest in guns before,” he admits, “but the moment I saw it, all I could think about was making it mine.” His initial concern for the victim quickly evaporates as soon as the gun enters his possession; instead, he fixates on “a sense of fulfillment” from the gun in his hand. Something has awakened in him. Soon he’s in awe of himself. “I felt full of such possibilities,” he notes, staring at the weapon hidden in his apartment.
What does he mean by “such possibilities”? Although Nakamura draws comparisons to Dostoevsky, Nishikawa is no Raskolnikov. He doesn’t entertain Raskolnikov’s Napoleonic ambitions. Nishikawa simply spends his nights drinking with his one friend and womanizing. His violent language betrays casual misogyny: he calls intercourse “go[ing] in for the kill”. And unlike Raskolnikov, pangs of conscience glance off Nishikawa.
His only real interest is preserving his lone trespass against the law – keeping the gun for himself. “As long as I didn’t make any mistakes,” Nishikawa tells himself, “the gun would remain mine.” Simply having the gun seems enough at first; he’s “just like a child, thrilled by the acquisition of an unusual plaything”. He also plays with the gun like an adolescent, repeatedly polishing it inside his apartment in a masturbatory master gesture. Nakamura even has Nishikawa toy with the gun in bed on at least one occasion.
Nakamura makes clear that Nishikawa has no motives. At his most self-reflective, Nishikawa admits to having “this ambivalent consciousness that could be swayed by whatever vague reasons”. He isn’t someone whose deepest desire is to kill; he hardly has desires before claiming the gun. But he’s someone who can be convinced to kill. All it takes is the possibilities this new toy has opened before him.
It only takes a few days with the gun for its purpose to cross Nishikawa’s mind. During a boring lecture, his attentions wander to his favorite new plaything: “I could think only of it causing injury, of destroying life; it had been created expressly so that a person could commit such deeds, its design utterly compact, nothing extraneous.” And that purpose quickly metastasizes into possibility:
To use the gun, to do something with it—the circumstances I now found myself in, that allowed for such a possibility, was the best part. I could use the gun to threaten someone, or I could use it to protect someone. I could kill someone, or I could even easily commit suicide. Rather than the question of whether or not I would actually do these things, or whether or not I wanted to, what was important was being in possession of that potential…
Like any technology, the gun could be used for both good and ill purposes, with corresponding outcomes. Yet Nishikawa intuits that, unlike other objects, the gun forces its most violent outcome. “Being in possession of the gun meant that each day was filled with the potential experience of actually discharging it,” he reflects, “and without a doubt there would come a day when I would want to do so—that is to say, I was sure I would fire it.” There’s little remove between Nishikawa’s gun and Chekhov’s. It’s going to go off. The question is when – and what (or whom) will it shoot.
At first, Nishikawa fires the gun in a park to euthanize a cat struck by a car. It’s arguably an “acceptable” use (Japan’s laws against firearm discharge notwithstanding). But Nakamura reveals it as a scene of terror. Nishikawa’s single shot, in all its gory detail, summons a sudden bloodlust: “The first thing I was aware of thinking was, That was a direct hit. And right away I had the desire to experience the sensation that went along with that action again.” He shoots the dead cat a second time, only stopping because there’s nothing left of the animal to target.
But Nishikawa isn’t out of bullets. He’s still in possession of that destructive potential. A detective who later investigates the cat’s remains makes plain the stakes involved. “[W]hat comes next after shooting a cat,” he observes, “is shooting a person.” The detective knows his quarry. Every new tool opens a new set of actions; every new action makes possible a yet more extreme version of itself. Someone who has fired a gun is prepared to fire it again at a new target. Nishikawa senses this trajectory, remarking, “A gun had been made to shoot a person—it was created to make it easier to kill someone.”
From there, the detective’s supposition is all but a logical conclusion. “[W]hy shouldn’t I shoot someone?” Nishikawa asks himself. “It was difficult to come up with an answer.” It’s a rational question in a weaponized world. One asks whether or not to kill someone only if the means of killing are obtainable. Without the possibility of murder – such as having a gun near to hand – the ethics of it are moot. We don’t have to wonder if a murder fantasy is morally and legally wrong if it doesn’t have a chance of happening.
However, our world in America – and Nishikawa’s in Japan – is a world with guns. The possibility of murder is real. For Nishikawa, the consideration is less ethical than logistical. In perhaps the ultimate rebuttal to the “guns don’t kill people” line, Nakamura highlights how the gun alone enables Nishikawa to think and act violently. “I remembered how, when I first imagined firing the gun, I had envisioned shooting a young woman,” Nishikawa comments. “I had the impression that I was following, very precisely, a process that was integral to the gun itself.” The gun asks for this sort of thing. The person wielding it may be deemed the murderer, but murder inheres in the gun. Nishikawa even goes so far as to posit, “I was nothing more than a part of the system that activated the gun.”
How easily Nishikawa wields the gun suggests he’s not far off the mark to believe this. “When I grasped it to take aim,” he notices upon first finding it, “without thinking each of my fingers found their proper position.” A man with no training whatsoever, in a country where guns are virtually inaccessible, shows himself capable of wielding one the moment he places it in his hand. The moment says less about his natural aptitude for firearms than it does the gun’s power to transform anyone into a shooter. It’s not designed to be difficult to fire. It’s meant to simplify the act of shooting – to streamline it. The gun is one less barrier between a violent impulse and its most extreme possible conclusion.
He may not fit the exact profile of a shooter, but Nishikawa raises many of the usual red flags. He treats women badly. He’s susceptible to media, often thinking in terms of gangster and romance movies. He even notes when his own actions mimic them: “I thought that move seemed like straight out of a movie”, he beams after issuing a verbal threat.) His home life isn’t completely stable; a subplot involves visiting his biological father during the final stages of a terminal illness.
Ultimately, none of these things are enough to make Nishikawa a murderer. The gun is the only necessary and sufficient condition.
An old saying goes, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Nakamura asks us to consider how the world must look to someone wielding a portable killing machine.
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Gun Violence Archive. “Mass Shootings in 2023“.
Low, Harry. “How Japan has almost eradicated gun crime”. BBC News. 6 January 2017.
“Japan — Gun Facts, Figures and the Law“. GunPolicy.org.
Markel, Howard. “How the Tylenol murders of 1982 changed the way we consume medicine”. PBS.org. 29 September 2014.
“‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens”. The Onion. 1 June 2019.
Wadmen, Meredith. “Firearms research: The gun fighter”. Nature. 24 April 2013.