TOKYO – Armed policemen patrol streets on the way to school, education officials draw up safety maps and young students carry alarms to call for help in an emergency.
A spate of grisly crimes targeting schoolchildren has horrified Japan and dealt a serious blow to its image as a safe country for children. The killings — one girl's corpse was stuffed into a box, another victim was stabbed a dozen times in the chest a third also stabbed, allegedly by one of her teachers Saturday — have put authorities on alert and worried parents on edge.
This relatively peaceful country is reassessing such traditions as letting young children walk long distances to school on their own. Along with the school uniform and first book bag, the walk to school — sometimes taking 40 minutes in rural areas — has long been a rite of passage for children entering the first grade.
"I would never let my son go out alone. I like to have him around where I can keep an eye on him," said Naoko Ishibashi, a Tokyo housewife and mother of a 5-year-old. "These days, I feel worried when I see any child walking alone in the streets."
Education authorities and police are examining the routes children take to school, warning students about talking to strangers and establishing neighborhood "safe-houses" where kids can flee if they feel threatened.
Technology also is playing a part. Authorities are stepping up plans to provide children with special alarms and tracking devices, and to establish cell-phone networks to alert parents and children in an area when a threat is spotted.
The issue has attracted attention from the highest levels of Japanese government.
"Distressful and regrettable incidents have been occurring, and it's a problem that we need to take seriously," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said this week. "We need to strengthen cooperation between police, officials ... and families."
Crime in general has increased in Japan during the past decade of economic malaise, but the recent string of child-killings has been especially disturbing.
On Nov. 22, the strangled body of 7-year-old Airi Kinoshita was discovered taped inside a box on a parking lot in Hiroshima in southwestern Japan.
On Dec. 2, Yuki Yoshida, also 7, was found stabbed to death in a forest northeast of Tokyo.
The latest killing came Saturday when a teacher in western Japan allegedly stabbed a 12-year-old student, news reports said.
The first killing generated fevered coverage in Japanese media when a Peruvian immigrant was arrested, fanning growing fears that increasing numbers of foreigners are responsible for rising crime.
No arrests have been made in the second killing.
The number of crimes against children in Japan edged up 2 percent from 2000 to 2004, but the number of murders increased 50 percent — from 20 in 2000 to 30 in 2004. The number of other serious crimes also is up.
In 2001, a man with a history of mental illness stabbed eight children at an elementary school near Osaka. Last year, an 11-year-old girl slashed a 12-year-old friend to death with a box-cutter during lunchtime.
Until the Osaka attack, schools prided themselves on being open to the community, with anyone able to enter the grounds. But that changed after the killings — educators locked campus gates, posted guards and set up round-the-clock surveillance.
The recent attacks have come outside of school grounds, meaning educators, police and parent groups have to work together to develop countermeasures, officials said.
But some authorities feel a sense of helplessness in trying to find ways to foil criminals intent on attacking young children.
"Even if you are going home in a group, there will be a child in the end who will need to go home alone," said Masumi Takeuchi, leader of Hiroshima's campaign against violence targeting children.
"Who will protect you in the end? It is not others, but only you that can protect yourself. This is the kind of awareness we need to develop."