Violence is a complicated and multifaceted issue.  It takes many forms, from verbal abuse, to young male hierarchical combat, to predation.  Any neat answers or simple solutions to the problems it presents are not only insufficient, they are irresponsible.  Each of us will undoubtedly have to deal with violence at certain points in our lives.  How you respond can change everything.

According to almost any common metric, Japan is a safe country.  It does not, however, exist outside of the realm of violence.  People get drunk and fights happen, sexual assault is almost a social institution, and as social inequality increases so do the number of asocial, predatory attacks.  Acknowledging that sexual assault and rape often go unreported while murders are underreported (due to the police intentionally misclassifying them), the idea that Japan is truly safe begins to seem like a cocktail of myth and reality.  That people accept this idealized version as true is a problem in itself since it leaves them, and society as a whole, unprepared to deal with ugly realities when they arise.

In the last few years, sudden attacks, characterized by extreme levels of violence and disregard for human life, have increasingly become part of the cultural milieu.  These occurrences have many worried that, beneath the placid exterior, Japan’s social system is crumbling.  A sleeping commuter bludgeoned into a coma by a 16 year-old wielding a hammer; a bus hijacked by a schoolboy with a kitchen knife; a girl in elementary school decapitated by her box cutter wielding classmate; a stabbing rampage in Akihabara that left 10 injured and 7 dead; the nature of violence in Japan is disturbing and personal.  To ignore it is to increase the likelihood of finding oneself among its victims.

Violence is never just physical, so purely physical preparation is insufficient.  The emotional and psychological aspects of violence must be addressed.  Those who engage in predatory violence do not recognize rights or rules or cheating.  They are concerned only with tactics, odds, and resources.  They will use charm, deception, fear, surprise, weapons, and superior numbers to get what they want.  They will hit you when you are at your weakest and use every advantage available to them.  You are not a person to them.  You are a resource to be exploited for money, a sense of power, or a release from personal torment.  It will happen closer, faster, more suddenly, and more powerfully than you can imagine and reacting will not be enough.  You must be proactive.  Luckily, this same strategy will help, not only with predatory violence, but with violence in all its forms.

There are a few things you need in order to be effectively proactive.  First, know that there is no such thing as random violence.  People always have reasons for what they do and they will give off cues as to what is about to happen.  As a result, awareness is a necessity and the greatest self-protection tool that you possess.  This includes self-awareness, awareness of your attacker(s), and awareness of your environment.  It must also encompass awareness of your reason for protecting yourself.  This reason can’t be trite or commonplace.  It needs to be visceral and evocative.  It needs to be something that will keep you going when you have every reason to give up.

You should also be aware of your ‘Go’ buttons; the times when you have no choice but to act.  For example, you should never allow an attacker to move you to a secondary location.  Nothing good can come from allowing such an attacker more private time with you.  It is better to fight for your life where there may be witnesses.  Other ‘Go’ buttons may include when an armed attacker is distracted or puts down his weapon, in order to save your own life or someone else’s, or to prevent a rape from occurring.  These moments of action must be decided on and internalized.

You will also need to be aware of your goal.  This goal may simply be to survive or escape, but it could be to protect someone else or to prevent something undesirable from occurring.  Your goal will dictate the best strategy to employ, your strategy will highlight appropriate tactics, and your tactics will help you to determine what techniques will be most useful.  Without a goal, everything else lacks grounding and there is a much greater chance that you will act inappropriately or ineffectively.

The second big thing is initiative.  You have to be able to act decisively and determinedly.  What you do is less important than how you do it.  Hesitancy and indecisiveness only give your attacker more opportunities and will telegraph any actions you do decide to take.

The last big requirement, and the one most often overlooked, is permission.  Most well-socialized people will go to great lengths in order to prevent being rude or making a scene.  This is what allows others to take advantage of them.  If something feels wrong, you must allow yourself to take action.  Say something.  Remove yourself from the situation.  Prepare for what’s coming.  If you’ve never hit another human being with violent intent before, you will likely find the biggest obstacle is a psychological one.  We have spent so many years being conditioned to fit in with civilized people that we can easily forget how to be animals when it’s necessary.

Often, denial is so comfortable because we are more concerned with protecting our egos than our lives.  Those who believe it can’t happen to them are often so shocked when it does that they are frozen in denial and unable to respond.  The physical damage resulting from such inaction pales in comparison to the psychological.  The best thing you can do is to educate yourself.  If you’re interested, some of the best material available (and much of this article’s content) comes from Tony Blauer, Richard Grannon, and Rory Miller.  Men or women who would like to take self-protection classes please e-mail:


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Jeffrey Johnston is a Japan based event photographer and publisher/writer and has been fortunate enough to travel and see the world. Been exposed to the limitless possibilities of photography over 12 years ago, he was able to see things differently. He currently shoots in the areas of people, fashion, event & news photography in Japan. He maintains a Facebook page with samples of his work. He can also be found at about contract work or with questions or comments on his photography.