My wife Diane and I just returned from a working visit to Japan (I was an instructor in a “Spring Symposium” in Kyoto, attended by top Japanese neuroscience doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows). On this trip, we took an extra day to stay overnight in a Buddhist monastery on Mount Koyosan, a sacred site deep in the mountains north of Osaka. There are hundreds of monasteries and shrines on this mountain; more than 50 large monasteries provide rooms for outside visitors.

The monastery that my wife and I visited was full of great works and objects of art, much of it dating back many hundreds of years — objects that, collectively, must be valued at millions of dollars. The monastery had no real security. Its flimsy wooden/paper doors had no locks on them. Any dumb thief could easily scoop up bagsful of golden objects, at their leisure.

It doesn’t happen.

Meanwhile, back in OUR great country, with THEIR level of security, these places would be completely stripped of their valuables within a week.

You might be interested to know that the robbery rate in the United States is more than 60 times the rate in Japan. About the same disparity applies for the rates of crimes of violence. In the US, you have a pretty darn good chance of being criminally assaulted in your lifetime. In Japan, it would be difficult to find an individual who has had that experience.

Japan is better at catching offenders and putting them in the slammer than we are. And 99.8% of individuals who are arrested for a felony are found guilty (93% plead guilty) and sentenced for punishment. It is difficult to believe that a 1 in 500 chance of acquittal reflects near-perfect policework! Still, only 1/25th as many Japanese citizens per capita are incarcerated as are US citizens.

Why, exactly, are the incidents of criminal behavior so much lower in Japan than in the US?

Before I answer that question, let’s consider a few more grim statistics. In a recent Pew Institute report, it was noted that we Americans now incarcerate about 1 in every 100 citizens (more than 2.3 MILLION individuals, overall). About 3X that number are on probation or parole. Put another way, 1 in 30 of our citizens (1 in every 18 men) are under the jurisdiction of a court, either in or out of prison. You might ask yourself: “Is this working?” Are the $many tens of billions/annum spent to sustain this system of ‘justice’ effective? In fact, the majority of offenders continue to offend, after their release from prison. In fact, about 40% and more than 50% of probationers and parolees do not successfully complete the terms of their probation or parole, even while we are not exactly generous about who we put on probation, or let out of stir.

By any measure, our societal structures inculcating empathic behaviors and our systems of jurisprudence, the administration of ‘justice’, and programs of rehabilitation and societal re-introduction are terribly flawed.

“What the devil,” you might be asking yourself, “does this have to do with the brain plasticity theme of this blog?” I am going to address that question in four following blogs, all approaching these issues from a brain plasticity perspective.

The first question: “Why are there such large differences in crime rates? How/why are we so good at creating a criminal class in American society?”

The second: “Why are our probationary and parole programs so ineffective? Why are our recidivism rates so high?”

The third: “Why isn’t our more aggressive approach on the side of blame and punishment and deterrence working? Why hasn’t the doubling of our incarcerated population of the past 15 years significantly increased our personal security and safety?”

The fourth: “What approaches could be expected to be MORE effective? Why aren’t they being applied in American society, or in prison or probationary environments?”

Look for a superficial (my) answer to these questions in blog postings over the next several days.