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Society fiddles as young get burned

Kids exploited despite claims to contrary

by Mark Schreiber

The vernacular media frequently goes tsk-tsk over crimes by juveniles. These days, people’s concerns tend to be reflected through two terms: “kyoaku-ka” and “teinenrei-ka,” which refer, respectively, to more violent crimes by increasingly younger perpetrators

Unfortunately, the media and the public tend to dwell a bit too much on the bad kids and not enough on finding more ways to insulate kids from the bad adults who prey on kids at every turn.

Japan may fancy itself as a society where young people are nurtured with care, but when they are hoodwinked and exploited so openly, and on such a vast scale, it makes me wonder what’s going on in the nation’s homes, schools and regulatory agencies.

Surely the most visible offenders are the ubiquitous “street scouts,” nattily attired young vultures who cruise the sidewalks of the capital, aggressively soliciting young women to take up jobs in bars or massage parlors.

The most persuasive ones are said to earn hundreds of thousands of yen a month.

Other con artists, engaging in so-called “catch sales,” are equally shameless. They loiter on the sidewalk, holding clipboards and offering free “expert consultations” on complexion, diet, etc.

These scams often lead to high-pressure sales of something costing hundreds of thousands of yen. April, when naive new arrivals from the countryside enter schools and join companies in the big cities, is said to be especially lucrative for swindlers.

The National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan posts warnings on its Web site (www.kokusen.go.jp), but the data is often too little, too late, and besides, who’s going to log onto the Web and ask the government for advice before signing up for classes that will teach you to become a TV star?

The consumer protection law provides for a seven-day grace period to nullify sales contracts, but the tricksters boast a remarkable repertoire of ways to avoid this, ranging from persuasion to intimidation.

When it comes to kids, large corporations’ show of good citizenship often has a pretty hollow ring to it. Japan Tobacco Inc. posts information on its Web site(www.jti.co.jp/JTI/tobacco/under_20/index.html) about the campaign to discourage smoking by minors. These efforts, however, aren’t doing much good.

An article in the April 7 Aera magazine cited a government report estimating that over 900,000 teenagers smoke, and that the number of boys in the second year of middle school who puff on a regular basis more than doubled between 1989 and 1995.

It’s not going to be easy to discourage the practice as long as this country boasts 630,000 cigarette vending machines. On a per capita basis, that figure is said to outnumber the U.S. by a ratio of 4:1.

More recently we’ve seen a surge in mischief committed using cell phones.

Last year, according to the police, juveniles entering so-called “encounter sites” were involved in over 1,200 serious crimes, including 787 cases of teen prostitution. Naturally, the giant communications companies plead innocence. They provide a perfectly respectable service; how can they be held responsible when people abuse it?

The sad fact is, youngsters these days have too much money and too little common sense. That’s good news for the companies that hope to harness their mindless herd instinct and sell them overpriced trinkets.

If a Japanese teen can be convinced her worth as a human is zero unless she carries a 100,000 bag marked with an LV or CC or HH logo, why, how can anyone find fault with the manufacturers or the boutiques?

The media, which depends on ad revenues, seldom rejects ads from questionable advertisers. Popular magazines are full of ads from cut-rate plastic surgeons who offer cosmetic procedures at bargain prices to “fix” girls’ eyelids and noses. Meanwhile, patients are often left in the dark about possible complications.

The unlucky ones are left disfigured, in pain, or both, with little legal recourse, since malpractice litigation here often fails.

Another outrageous racket involves urologists, whose ads can be found in nearly every men’s magazine. They convince naive youths that they will be rejected by girls unless they undergo circumcision, promising a “cure” as if they suffered from some sort of birth defect. A responsible physician would almost certainly dissuade a patient from such surgery.

Combine lax enforcement of existing regulatory measures with the overworked consumer watchdog organizations and a cumbersome court system that discourages litigation, and it’s hardly surprising why so many young people are victimized.

And those who campaign the most vociferously against unethical practices are often viewed as cranks.

Behind the problem is a tendency in this country to view things as “taigan no kaji” literally, a fire on the opposite bank. Until my house starts to smolder, people think, it’s somebody else’s problem.

Meanwhile, this indifferent society continues to fiddle while its young people burn.