With the volume favored by candidates’ loudspeaker cars, it can be difficult to tell what issues they are addressing in the campaign leading up to Sunday’s election for the House of Representatives. Both the ruling and opposition parties are engaging in the usual name-calling and sloganeering and not giving more than superficial attention to some of the main concerns of potential voters. One of these is the rising tide of juvenile violence that parents, school authorities and the police all seem powerless to control.
A number of heinous incidents this year have all involved 17-year-olds. But as each day’s news brings a fresh report of yet another case of youthful criminal behavior, the age level of the perpetrators has dropped to as low as 15 or even 14. Meanwhile, all the political parties are mainly concentrating on the idea of lowering the age at which young people legally become adults to 18 from the present 20. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, campaigning nationwide for the Liberal Democratic Party and its partners in the governing coalition, is having some success in controlling his tendency to make provocative statements that embroil him in instant controversy. He is putting the emphasis in stump speeches on reducing the age at which minors can be tried in criminal courts for serious offenses from 16 to 14.
This appears to be what all the parties have in mind, in the wake of the public’s disappointment at the failure of the regular Diet session, which ended June 2, not only to pass but even to discuss the widely heralded bill aimed at revising the Juvenile Law to better deal with the increase in youthful crimes of violence. As a result, the bill was scrapped.
The present Juvenile Law, which came into effect in 1949, stresses the rehabilitation of young wrongdoers. The Family Court has jurisdiction over cases involving young people under 20. Serious cases involving youths 16 or older can be referred to prosecutors for handling in a criminal court, although until recently this has rarely occurred. Juveniles under the age of 14 who engage in acts that legally would be considered criminal offenses are referred to a special consultation office for children. But as the level of youthful violence has escalated, and the types of crimes perpetrated have become more serious, many people now believe the law is too lenient.
Young people in Japan today certainly are more physically mature than their counterparts of half a century ago. They also are more sophisticated, thanks to rapid developments in mass communications and the influence of unsavory elements in the media. Whether they are more mature emotionally is debatable. Many are clever enough to admit, if challenged, that they are sometimes tempted into risky behavior by the knowledge that they will be treated lightly if they happen to get caught.
If the youth of Japan are to be empowered to vote from the age of 18, a step many other nations have already taken, then it stands to reason that the Juvenile Law should be revised to apply to young people under that age. Before this is done, however, any proposed revisions must be discussed and debated in detail, with testimony provided by educators and law-enforcement officials. Voters should not allow politicians to fall back on hollow promises. Vague suggestions of cracking down on teenage criminal behavior do not solve the problem.
The issue is not simply the age of the culprits. The larger question is why so many young people in this country now resort to violence so easily. A recent survey of male junior and senior high school students by the Management and Coordination Agency found that the older they are the more likely they are to consider physically attacking their parents or teachers. The National Police Agency has just reported that police throughout the nation arrested 31 male juveniles suspected of murder or attempted murder from the beginning of this year through the end of April, double the number in the same period of 1999.
It is all too easy, however, to use the threat of severer punishments as a cure-all. Some youthful lawbreakers deserve and require time in juvenile reformatories, or possibly even in adult prisons. The motives for the violence and the warning signs that are often ignored by parents and teachers need to be considered. Too-hasty moves to incarcerate young miscreants with adult offenders will only succeed in turning more of them into hardened criminals.
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