National / Crime & Legal

Japan begins soul-searching over crimes against unsupervised children

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

In a nation where young children are commonly encouraged to walk to school on their own, the recent shocking murder of a girl in Kobe raises questions over whether people in Japan are too trusting and should supervise schoolchildren more closely.

The dismembered body of 6-year-old Mirei Ikuta was found Sept. 23 in plastic bags near where she lived, and nearby resident Yasuhiro Kimino, 47, is in custody on suspicion of abandoning her body. Police have also reported identifying her bloodstains at the man’s home.

The slaying is the latest in a series of child kidnappings and attacks on schoolchildren while they were unaccompanied by adults.

In July, an 11-year-old girl was abducted on her way home in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture. She was rescued after five days and a 49-year-old man, Takeshi Fujiwara, confessed to kidnapping her.

Unlike in most Western countries, it is uncommon for parents in Japan to drop off and pick up their children before and after school. Nor is it considered a crime of child neglect or abuse to leave underage children at home alone.

Nobuo Komiya, a professor of criminology at Rissho University in Tokyo, says that although measures should be taken to prevent a repeat of the Kobe murder, it would be “unrealistic” for Japan to adopt the constant parental surveillance that is the norm in other advanced nations.

“For one thing, compared with other countries, parents in Japan tend not to live close to their workplace,” he said.

Another hurdle that needs to be overcome, he said, is Japan’s ingrained “men at work” corporate mindset, whereby male employees who seek to get involved in household duties can be frowned upon.

“As a male employee in Japan, you can’t really leave the office at around, say, 3 p.m. to pick up your kids and still expect your boss to grade you favorably,” he said.

As long as this persists, collecting children at the school gate will never be as feasible in Japan as it is in other nations, Komiya said.

Similarly, Akiko Seto, a professor of human life and environmental sciences studies at Nara Women’s University, says it isn’t realistic to expect Japan to quickly adopt the U.S.-style monitoring of schoolchildren, including common use of school buses. She cites cost as a major reason.

The very best the nation can do to protect children, said Komiya of Rissho University, is to get them to understand the real threat.

“Japanese teachers are blindly of the opinion that criminals only appear on an empty street during the night. But that’s nonsense. What kind of kid wanders around at night? Criminals show up when and where they’re certain they can find many of their targets,” he said, adding that about 90 percent of today’s so-called community safety maps — neighborhood plans designed to visualize criminal hot spots — are drafted at schools based on this misguided assumption.

That said, Japan, at least on the municipal level, appears to be inching toward providing better security for children who walk home from school alone.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government, for one, is offering municipalities partial subsidies for installing security cameras along school routes.

The city of Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, encourages parents to ensure their children are always escorted by an adult to and from school.

In 2005, a 7-year-old Nikko schoolgirl was kidnapped on her way home and found stabbed to death.

Not a single child in the girl’s Osawa Elementary School now walks home alone, said its principal, Takeo Otsuka.

Since the 2005 killing, the school has made it mandatory for parents to come to pick up their children after class. Those whose parents are still at work are escorted by city officials to a municipal children’s facility, where they wait to be collected.

“Even today, I imagine it’s a bit of hassle for the parents to do all this,” said Otsuka. “But all things considered, we stand by the belief that safety is what counts most.”