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No guns at home, so Japanese shoot 'em up in Guam

Published February 16, 2013 8:58 pm

Travel • Tourists flock to American territory where firing ranges flourish.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Tamuning, Guam • Their well-equipped arsenals offer everything from tiny revolvers (for ladies) to Berettas, Glocks, semi-automatic pistols and M16 military assault rifles. If kids can see over the counter, they are welcome too.

Forget the white sandy beaches, coral reefs and laid-back island culture. For many tourists from Japan, the biggest thrill is the chance to shoot a gun at one of Guam's ubiquitous ranges, dozens of which are tucked between upscale shopping centers.

The U.S. territory of Guam — a tropical island often described as a cheaper version of Hawaii — has long been the perfect place to put guns in the hands of tourists, especially from Japan, where gun ownership is tightly restricted and handguns are banned.

Despite a shared sense of shock over the recent rampage by a gunman at America's Sandy Hook Elementary School, the gun tourism business here is as brisk as ever.

"It was such a feeling of power," Keigo Takizawa, a 30-year-old Japanese actor, said after blasting holes in a paper target with a shotgun, a .44 magnum and a Smith & Wesson revolver at the Western Frontier Village gun club, a cowboy-themed indoor shooting range and gift shop on Guam's main shopping street.

"But," he said, "I still don't think anyone should be allowed to have one of their own."

Many Japanese see America's gun culture as both frightening and fascinating. Back home, the only people with handguns are in the military, the police or the mob.

Because guns are so hard to find, gun-related crime is extremely rare. They were used in only seven murders in Japan — a nation of about 130 million people — in 2011, the most recent year for official statistics. In the U.S., with 315 million people, there are more than 11,000 gun-related killings annually.

The Japanese are proud of their low crime rate and generally support tough gun-control policies.

But this Pacific island halfway between Tokyo and Honolulu is America. Guam's gun ranges are to the Japanese what Amsterdam's cannabis cafes are to backpackers from the world over.

"I think it's human nature to be curious about something that is forbidden," said Tetsuo Yamamoto, a Japanese native who emigrated to the United States 30 years ago and runs the Western Frontier Village range. "Most of our customers are from Japan and have never had the opportunity to shoot a gun. It's very exotic for them, and it's very exhilarating."

So exhilarating that he sometimes asks his guests to stay around for a while to calm down after they've finished shooting.

Many other tourists — from South Korea, Taiwan and increasingly Russia — are less impressed. All South Korean men, for example, learn how to shoot during mandatory military service.

"To them, learning how to use a gun was a chore," said Patrick Chon, general-manager of the Hafa Adai indoor shooting range. "It brings back bad memories. They hardly ever come here."

Visitors to his range are greeted by movie posters for "The Terminator" and "Die Hard," with their iconic, gun-toting action heroes. The Hollywood shoot-'em-up image is a common motif at many ranges, playing into an image of America that many Asians share.

"When most Japanese people think of American culture, one of the first things they think of is guns," said Natsue Matsumoto, a 38-year-old Osaka woman who said she enjoyed shooting so much she was back at a range for the second time in three days. "American movies and video games are full of guns and that's appealing, in a frightening sort of way.

"But I think Japan has it right," she added. "If you don't have a gun, you can't kill someone with it."