Japan has often been touted as a safe country, where theft is so rare you can leave your smartphone, laptop or wallet unattended and rest easy knowing that nobody else will touch it.
However, this summer there’s been an increase in theft…of livestock, farming equipment and agricultural produce.
The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) alerted everyone to the problem with this tweet posted to their official account on Sept 3 (translation follows).
(Please be alert) "Producers are suffering from theft of livestock and agricultural products grown with tender care, and machines such as tractors. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, in conjunction with the National Police Agency, is alerting people and putting points in order to prevent theft. In regards to the producers, please take care against theft in accordance with these points.”
The farm theft has affected a number of producers throughout Japan, particularly in Ibaraki, Saitama and Gunma prefectures. Saitama Prefecture has been worst hit, with 688 pigs (including piglets), two cows and 28 chickens reported stolen across five areas, while a total of 132 pigs have been stolen from two cities in Gunma Prefecture and six cows from a city in Ibaraki Prefecture have also been reported stolen.
A spate of farm thefts of this magnitude is extremely unusual, and as reports began gathering, so too did the questions about who might be behind the crimes.
A number of high-profile people in Japan decided to weigh in on the topic with their two yen, but they waded into murky waters by bringing race into the discussion.
Japanese actor and musician Takeshi Tsuruno, who has relatives in the farming industry, retweeted the message from MAFF and had this to say:
“In our field the coriander/cilantro was recently hit. They were caught red-handed but persistently said “I don’t understand Japanese” so please be careful. It’s sad, but we installed a surveillance camera.”
Tsuruno’s tweet quickly went viral, receiving more than 34,000 likes and over 16,000 retweets. It also garnered a number of negative comments too:
“You didn’t have to mention that they didn’t understand Japanese.”
“It’s strange to make this a Japanese/non-Japanese thing.”
“A thief is a thief, regardless of race.”
“So it could be a Japanese person pretending that they don’t understand Japanese, right?”
“We should be focussing on the crime itself, not the nationality of the criminal.”
After the backlash, Tsuruno attempted to back-pedal on his original comment with:
“The act of stealing agricultural produce, whether Japanese or foreign, is a criminal offense. It is a fact, not discrimination. My brother-in-law used a samurai’s compassion and forgave them, but we didn’t expect them to make such an allegation, so we will definitely report it next time. The neighboring fields are also being hit in the same way, so we will work together to prevent crime.”
This only ignited another heated debate in the replies section, prompting Tsuruno to ask why he, as the victim, was being admonished instead of the criminal. He then exited the argument by saying:
“I’m sorry everyone is offended!!
Why should the victim be denounced?!
This is too outrageous and I’m totally mad.”
Japanese politician and former governor of Niigata Prefecture Ryuichi Yoneyama then chimed in on the debate by saying that even if the perpetrator was a foreigner in this case, it doesn’t automatically link foreigners to the widespread livestock theft mentioned by MAFF.
However, on Sept 26, it was reported that a police officer in Gifu Prefecture arrested two foreigners on July 31 in relation to damage to livestock. The officer encountered two Vietnamese men on bicycles at 4 a.m. in the morning, and pursued them after spotting blood stains on their bicycles. At around 6:30 a.m., a cow in the same area was discovered dead and partially dismantled, leading the two men to be arrested on suspicion of building invasion and theft.
This case appeared to embolden the Japanese news media to pin the crimes against livestock on Vietnamese nationals. After interviewing a Vietnamese food store and restaurant, TV Asahi confirmed that a Vietnamese person had called the store offering to sell them a domestic piglet. Whole pigs aren’t generally sold in Japan, and according to a report by TBS News, it’s common for Vietnamese people to eat whole pigs, cooked on a spit, at big occasions like weddings.
As the perpetrators of the widespread livestock theft in Ibaraki, Saitama and Gunma prefectures remain at large, it seems the Japanese media have become preoccupied with determining the possible nationality of the criminals.
Until the criminals are caught, however, it might be best to stick to reporting the facts of each case as they come to light. And while it’s right to be outraged at the thefts on behalf of Japanese farmers, the nationality of the criminals shouldn’t be more of an issue than the crimes they’ve committed. Because a thief is a thief, regardless of where they come from.
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