A report released earlier this month by the Metropolitan Police Department found that crime is rising in innovative and trendy Akihabara. Bag thefts, shoplifting, and sales of restricted goods and illegal services have reached a worrying level that cannot be ignored. It is hoped that, in this case, Akihabara is not a bellwether of a broader, undesirable social direction. In the real world, there is no “GAME OVER” that lets you start back at the beginning.
Recently, many victims unwisely have entered questionable shops or participated in illegal activities. Other victims have been robbed while not paying attention to their bags, fell asleep in the wrong place or were tricked or bullied out of money. Less sympathy may go out to those who seemed complicit in their own victimization, but that does not make it acceptable. Due to embarrassment or a sense of futility, the actual number of incidents is most likely under-reported.
The sad-luck otaku and other victims may at least serve as a canary in the coal mine, warning the country about how easily such crimes can occur. Akihabara regulars who spend time, and lots of money, on techie shopping would appear to be disadvantaged by the traits of their own stereotype — lost in a fantasy world while robbed in the real world. From the point of view of criminals — including pickpockets, burglars and extortionists — not only Akihabara but also most of Japan must seem like an environment of easy pickings. What is happening in Akihabara can happen any place in the country.
Ironically, the crime rate has been relatively low for so long that most people living in Japan move through their day oblivious to the potential dangers. Take a look around any train station or the inside of a train and you see wide-open purses, briefcases slung on overhead racks with the owners fast asleep, and bags left unattended. Carrying large amounts of cash is still the norm. Most homes are still only a screwdriver away from a break-in and robbery. In many other countries, such lax conditions prompt immediate and constant theft. As more of these open opportunities for crime are taken, the quaint, overly secure feeling of the past will have to change.
Alarmism, though, is not the right response. As the crime rate rises, politicians, usually conservative ones, will be quick to exploit this issue for their own purposes. Fear always gets attention, of course, but usually ends up in hasty, short-term decisions. No single group of people, whether they be foreigners, the jobless or members of crime syndicates, can be blamed for these recent crimes. It is a social trend whose diverse causes cannot be simplified. Instead, common-sense precautions and practical deterrence will achieve better results.
Some measures have already been instituted. Although alarm systems, cameras and security systems may seem like signs of social deterioration, in other countries they are common-sense measures with clear benefits. Japan has not yet installed as many cameras as Britain, which has the highest number of CCTVs (closed-circuit TVs) in the world. Even if these Big Brother surveillance tactics merely drive crime out of sight, they do establish a more secure atmosphere. Greater awareness and attention will establish better and longer-lasting protection.
Considering Akihabara’s dependence on visitors, a downturn in sales out of fear of crime would be a disaster. The same applies throughout society. Stopping crime with affordable measures at early, nonviolent stages pays off quickly. In countries like the United States, prosecuting and punishing crime has become a severe social and economic drain. Crime feeds on itself and quickly creates conditions for more crime. Creating a non-crime atmosphere may sound like a fantasy, but Japan already has that; it just needs readjustment.
Akihabara is an important face of Japan. Listen in to passing conversations in Akihabara and you will hear a variety of languages worthy of the United Nations. Yet, Japan might do well to consider public safety as one of its major exports, along with electronic gizmos and anime culture. Police departments from around the world have already learned from Japan’s koban system, but much more remains to be studied. A high level of trust and comfort in the urban environment is a unique quality to be proud of — and is not easy to re-establish once lost.
The vitality and dynamism of any city can be measured in large part by the safety of people living there. Japan has long been one of the safest countries in the world, yet realistically, the crime rate will never drop to zero. Crime has serious economic, psychological and social consequences, but with the right attitudes and right actions, crime does not have to rise uncontrollably. After all, Akihabara-goers want to continue their shopping, gaming and video watching in the comfort they deserve.
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