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Driven by concerns about rising crime, citizens are standing up to protect themselves by forming neighborhood watch groups.

While public attention has recently focused on an apparent surge in abductions, especially of minors, overall crime is on the rise. This is especially true of burglaries and muggings, thus threatening Japan’s reputation as one of the world’s safest countries.

According to the National Police Agency, the number of recorded criminal cases hit a postwar high of 2,853,739 in 2002, up nearly 60 percent from 1994, though the arrest rate fell to 20.8 percent, less than half that of 1994.

Home burglaries and street crimes, including purse-snatchings and muggings, were particularly prominent.

One Tokyo neighborhood is now taking action to protect its streets; 44 residents of Matsubara in Setagaya Ward have banded together to form the Meidaimae Peace Makers, engaging in street patrols.

Last year they built the Meidaimae Peace Makers Box — the first attempt by a neighborhood to create a crime prevention base — across the street from the Keio Inokashira Line’s Meidaimae Station, where there is no police post.

Like an ordinary police box, the peace makers’ facility is manned and is aimed at offering help to those who need it.

“It is not that we catch suspicious people, but I believe our activities serve as a deterrent and have contributed to a decrease in crimes in the area,” said Kaoru Motosugi, head of the Meidaimae shopping district promotion cooperative.

Motosugi’s organization created the watch group in fall 2001 after the Matsubara district was named the most crime-prone out of the 10 districts within the jurisdiction of Kitazawa Police Station.

Schools and parents also wanted citizen patrols in the wake of several reports of child molestation — many of which involved students at a nearby elementary school.

The group patrols the streets day and night on a daily basis, while watching the kids on their way to and from the school three days a week. Since they started patrolling, there have been no reports of child molestation in the area, Motosugi said.

Those on patrol wear yellow jackets that glow in the dark and carry bells, hoping their presence and the sound of their approach will keep baddies away. They also take a different route every time in accordance with the situation.

“Simply emphasizing our presence by ringing the bells and shining our flashlights (at night) will help turn bad fellows away,” said patrol member Eiji Yoshikawa, who works at a publishing firm in the district.

He added that members also speak with local residents to promote good relations, believing that poor neighborhood ties, a characteristic of city life, have abetted the recent crime surge.

The 44 members of the group — mostly local retailers — are motivated by their love of the district, where many of them have lived for years, as well as their hopes of drawing in more customers.

A Kitazawa Police Station officer said that crimes in Matsubara declined in 2002 from the previous year, while the other nine districts in its jurisdiction showed increases.

The Meidaimae Peace Makers’ efforts have apparently inspired other communities across the nation to engage in neighborhood patrols, group leader Motosugi said.

Police believe the promotion of these citizen movements will help prevent crimes, and they have provided the Meidaimae group with information concerning the crime situation in the area.

“You can’t solely depend on police for public safety, because we cannot stand by every citizen all the time to protect them,” said Yoshimitsu Oshida, an official in the Metropolitan Police Department in charge of local crime prevention.

A calculation this year by the National Police Agency found that one police officer on average has to cover 533 people.

Since last year, police have bolstered their numbers by 20,000 nationwide and plan to hire another 30,000 over the next three years to deal with rising crime.

Experts say, however, that beefing up the police force alone will not change the situation overnight.

Oshida said police and neighborhood-watch groups must cooperate to ensure public safety.

Yukiko Saeki, who has authored several books on crime prevention, said that people must become more aware of the threat of crime and the need to be more cautious and self-protective.

“There are still many people in Japan who are careless about security, such as those who never lock their doors,” Saeki said, adding that people should always keep in mind that anyone can fall victim to crime at any time.

Individuals must pay more heed to the need to protect themselves, she said, noting that even a little caution can go a long way toward warding off crime.

“Police, regional surveillance groups and individuals should all work together to ensure public safety,” Saeki said.

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