National / Crime & Legal

Murder of Osaka students highlights street children problem

Kyodo

The murder this month of two junior high school students from Osaka Prefecture who loitered around a train station until the morning of the day they disappeared, has highlighted the problem of street children and prompted locals to enhance measures to protect them.

On Aug. 12, junior high-school student Ryoto Hoshino, 12, left his home in Neyagawa at around 9 p.m. to play outdoors with 13-year-old schoolmate Natsumi Hirata.

They were last seen alive at around 5 a.m. on Aug. 13 on security camera footage that captured them walking back and forth along a shopping street near Neyagawashi Station. They are believed have been killed soon after.

On Monday evening, only three days after the police arrested 45-year-old Koji Yamada on suspicion of murdering and abandoning Hirata’s body, a group of teenagers were seen loitering around the station.

“I’ve nothing to do at home,” said a casually dressed female student at a local high school, who was chatting with four of her friends.

She recalled an incident in which a stranger grabbed and pulled her arm, but stressed she was not planning to go back home, saying “it’s much more fun when I’m with friends.”

Michiharu Tokuno, 69, of Neyagawa’s municipal crime prevention association, speculated that a lack of healthy communication with family might be what pushes children onto the streets.

Nonfiction writer Seiji Fujii, who is familiar with issues surrounding children’s education, called the phenomenon a trap for children, saying it’s prevalent in larger cities, where communities are less supportive and social ties are weak.

Neyagawa, where the children were last seen, is a suburb of Osaka. Many people with jobs in the city come back only after work.

“Even in densely populated places children are supposed to be under watch of dozens of people but many of them, especially in larger cities, tend to be indifferent,” Fujii said. “Adults should be the ones who should give their full attention to children.”

In Fukuoka Prefecture’s Hakata, Street Project is one of the groups trying to address the problem of the increasing numbers of street children.

Since its establishment in May 2009, the group has offered a program enabling dropout junior high and high school students to pass the high school equivalency tests.

Along with classes held twice a week, the group also offers counseling for home problems and free meals.

“As many as 99 percent of children who seek our help have experienced neglect,” said head of Street Project Keiko Tsuboi, adding that most of them come without their legal guardians. In some cases, local schools introduce the group’s service, but many children seek help themselves on the Internet.

“We are trying to help them realize that they can try to restore their faith in adults,” Tsuboi said.

On Monday, the first day of the second semester at Neyagawa’s public school, where the two victims attended, a group of about 80 parents gathered to keep their eyes on children entering and leaving the school.

Some of them remained around the school’s premises when children attended extracurricular sport activities after school.

In the evening, the city’s crime preventive association dispatched a group of 20 volunteers to patrol the city’s streets, advising youth spotted in parks or residential areas to return home.

“Many children are convinced that nothing will happen to them,” said 72-year-old Koichi Ando, who joined the group patrolling the city streets. “We need to make them realize that hanging out on the streets at night is risky, to prevent such incidents in the future.”

The association said that groups of 10 to 20 volunteers will continue patrolling the city every day.

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