Arming teachers? Ask Japan

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Among potential reforms floated following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is the controversial idea of arming teachers in America’s schools. The proposal generates fierce debate, with critics balking at the idea of turning educators into ad hoc first responders in the event of a shooting. But the idea of arming teachers is not entirely far-fetched. It has been successfully implemented, in a non-firearm capacity, outside the United States.

Following a spate of primary school stabbings in the early 2000s in Japan and China, Japanese boards of education undertook a campaign to increase security on school campuses across the country. Gates were installed and, in some cases, guards assigned to patrol the school grounds. But teachers themselves became the last line of defence in the case of an armed intruder. Far from simply locking the classroom door and sheltering in place, Japanese public school teachers are trained to actively pursue, subdue and disable dangerous individuals attempting to harm students.

{mosads}These teachers do not go in empty-handed; rather, they are armed with long-handled sasumata — a non-lethal variant of a feudal-era Samurai weapon also known as a man-catcher — and often bokken, the wooden training swords used in kendo practice. Each year, schools hold a full-contact intruder drill with local police dressed in padded suits, in which teachers train on techniques to subdue individuals with man-catchers and, if necessary, disable their hands with strikes from the wooden swords or improvised tools. “Curtailment of violent behavior and persuasion to leave,” as one report charmingly refers to it.


With virtually every public school in Japan equipped with sasumata, it is a policy that has saved lives. In 2011 alone, there were two instances in which teachers in Ibaraki and Aichi prefectures successfully subdued and disarmed knife-wielding individuals within school buildings.

There is, of course, one obvious difference when discussing armed teachers in America versus those in Japan: the presumption in Japan is that teachers will face an intruder with a knife, not a gun. The example of Japan, however, does give proof of concept to the idea that armed teachers can make a difference should the unthinkable happen.

But would arming America’s teachers with firearm work, similar to what is done with airline pilots following 9/11, as President Trump has suggested? Critics immediately envision a hellscape of millions of open-carrying teachers in the classroom, but the notion of using teachers as an armed deterrent is not without merit.

In Japan, the sasumata man-catchers and bokken swords described above are secured within the school staffroom, not classrooms. A similar approach in the United States might have firearms securely stored in the school’s administrative and departmental offices — centrally located and accessible only to those authorized, but not kept in classrooms.

Like the Japanese experience, those select teachers designated to use a firearm could train with local police to refine their responses and techniques. To ensure teachers are not accidentally shot by first responders, schools might register a “firearms plan” with the local police department, setting out the names and descriptions of those teachers in a given school with access to firearms.

Armed teachers in the United States have in the past minimized the damage caused by a school shooter. Leaving aside the cartoonish strawman notion that the presence of responsibly-secured firearms in a school will result in every educator openly carrying a weapon in the classroom, or panicked teachers blind-firing into the air in an emergency, it is entirely possible to have a sensible firearm policy in place in schools.

Preventative measures such as effective police intervention in the face of known threats are, of course, a preferred solution. However, when police work fails, or where armed security or campus police are unavailable, selecting a small group of psychologically-stable, gun-experienced teachers, securing firearms outside the classroom and conducting drills with designated teachers in coordination with local police can be a reasonable policy of last resort.

Allan Richarz is a privacy lawyer in Japan. As a former junior high school teacher in Japan, he has personally undergone the training described above. Follow him on Twitter @AllanRicharz.

Tags Bokken Donald Trump Law enforcement Prevention Sasumata School shooting Security Security guard Teacher

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