by Dan Ryan
They were young boys shooting corks from toy rifles at a street fair in a poor Tokyo neighborhood. It was a sunny, gorgeous Saturday in late April, 2012, the beginning of an extended holiday called Golden Week. And the gunplay was an innocent thing, just kids having fun taking harmless pop-shots at a child’s treasure trove of prizes. My only agenda when I took these photos was to record happy aspects of street life in Sanya, a grubby section in northeast Tokyo that has been shunned and ignored for decades due to its association with professions Buddhists traditionally consider unclean, such as butchering food animals. Sanya isn’t even on any official maps nor recognized by the Tokyo city government.
Here in the United States, Sanya would probably be riddled with gangs, guns, drugs, and crime, instead of an aging population of day laborers, many of whom stumble about the streets drunk on cheap beer and rice wine. But since the December, 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, these particular photographs have acquired a new context for me.
Japan’s gun laws are far more restrictive than ours in the US. I can look at these photos and be nearly certain that these children will never own an actual working handgun, shotgun, or assault rifle. They don’t live in a culture where gun murders and school shootings occur with enough regularity as to have become tragically commonplace.
Forty years ago when I was a boy of eight or nine, I could have been one of these Japanese kids. I remember having a cap-gun battles in a friend’s back yard, or trying to win a prize with a cork bullet at a schoolmate’s cowboy-themed birthday party shooting game. It isn’t like that in America anymore. Our culture has changed. Guns have become so prevalent in the US, and so easy to get, that children bring firearms to school to deal with bullies or get revenge upon other students who have treated them as social outcasts. Or even just to show off.
We have lost control of our American gun culture, so much so that toy guns are widely considered distasteful and politically-incorrect. And they should be, even though a child can get in almost as much trouble bringing a toy gun to school as he or she would for bringing a real gun. The link between childhood toy gunplay and irresponsible gun use or ownership in later life may be problematic and difficult to prove, but many of us know we have a huge gun problem in America. Unfortunately it is easier to control the toys our children play with than to demand our elected officials and judicial appointees look after our safety and best interests the way they are supposed to.
But due to their laws, the Japanese don’t have these problems. And thanks to that these photographs will always bring me happy memories. Because when I look at them in a week or a decade from now, I won’t wonder if any of the children in my pictures caught a stray bullet in his local park or school, or grew up to become a murderous gun-toting thug or schoolyard shootist. These toy guns are almost certainly the most threatening firearms these kids will ever have to face.
So take that picture of your beloved kids out of your purse or wallet, my fellow Americans, and tell me with fear-free confidence that they won’t ever be touched by some kind of gun violence.
(Pictures taken at the Iroha shōtengai in Sanya, Tokyo on April 28th, 2012)