Osaka police, city engage public to help fight crime


OSAKA — With a new survey showing that more than half of Osaka residents have been the victims of crime, city officials and prefectural police are stepping up their campaigns to make the city safer.

But officials, police and local merchants have differing opinions over what concrete measures should be implemented to solve the problem, which for nearly two decades has put Osaka at the top of the list for such offenses as purse-snatchings and women being molested on trains.

Last month, Osaka conducted its first ever survey on safety, asking residents whether they feel safe, whether they have been the victim of a crime and what they believe should be done to make the streets safer.

The results, according to the city official in charge of the survey, came as a surprise.

“Nearly 55 percent of the roughly 560 people who responded said they had been a crime victim,” Ryozan Tanaka, of the city’s resident bureau, said. “More then two-thirds of the crimes were petty crimes like stolen bicycles, but about 15 percent (of these victims) said they had been the victim of a purse-snatching.”

In addition, more than 83 percent of the respondents said they believe Osaka is a dangerous place at least some of the time, while the figure came to nearly 90 percent for women in their 20s and 30s.

Next month, the city plans to draft proposals on how to make Osaka safer, using the survey’s findings.

Over the past year, in the wake of a municipal government-led campaign to attract tourists to the newly opened Osaka International Convention Center and the Universal Studios Japan theme park, the city and local police have stepped up efforts to combat street crime.

Posters telling people to be on the alert for purse-snatchers have become more prevalent, while the Osaka Prefectural Police’s Web site now has maps of each area in the city where purse-snatchings have, or are most likely, to occur.

“Not surprisingly, purse-snatchings and bicycle thefts most often occur around major train stations, on back streets close to the major thoroughfares that make it easy for perpetrators on motorbikes to get away,” a police official said.

The results of the survey, however, are likely to increase pressure on local authorities to do more.

Osaka police — and many residents — say more officers should be put on the street. The prefecture hopes to increase the current force of some 200,000 officers by about 5,000 over the next few years, although it is unclear how many would be assigned to Osaka city itself.

Tanaka questions whether this will in itself lead to a safer city.

“I think the most effective way is to educate the public about potential dangers,” he said. “Many people still behave like Osaka is a safe city, leaving their luggage unattended on trains, or opening their purse or wallet in the middle of a busy street.”

Local merchants, on the other hand, say the main problem is not a lack of police or education, but a lack of lighting. In Chuo Ward, which had more than 300 reported purse-snatchings last year, making it the worst district in the city, some say more street lights are the best deterrent to crime.

“More efforts should be made to install street lights, especially on side streets that can be quite dark. Right now, it’s too easy for thieves to hide in the shadows,” said Sachiko Okubo, who runs a small Italian restaurant in the ward and says several of her regular customers have had their purses snatched nearby.

Tanaka said Okubo is not alone in her demand for more lights.

“Many respondents to the survey who run their own businesses also said they would like to see wider streets and more street lights,” he said.

While some of the suggestions made by the respondents, such as installing more lighting in streets and public parks, are likely to be incorporated into the city’s anticrime proposals, Tanaka said education and cooperation among authorities are the most important factors.

“A lot of the petty crimes are committed by youths,” he said. “It’s important that we work with schools to create crime-prevention educational programs.

“In addition, rules and regulations have sometimes hindered cooperation between the prefectural police and city officials in the past, so we need to think more seriously about how police, city officials, local merchants and NGOs interested in crime prevention can all work together.”