Crime-Weary Japanese Parents Opt for Parks With Security Cameras, No-Germ Sand

Fantasy Kids Resort has all the basic amenities of a park for young children, with a few extras: uniformed monitors, security cameras and sterilized sand. Visitors spray their stroller wheels with antiseptic soap.

The new indoor park near Tokyo — one of at least a dozen like it around Japan — might seem an overly protective environment for children in one of the world's safest societies.

But for many Japanese parents, parks like this are a logical, high-security response to a string of dramatic crimes against children that are fixating the nation.

CountryWatch: Japan

Fantasy Kids Resort marries those concerns with the Japanese penchant for cleanliness and a free-spending reverence for children that has deepened as birthrates drop and single-child homes proliferate.

"Here I feel safe enough to let my kid out of my sight," said Yukiko Matsushita, visiting with her 4-year-old daughter. "It's too late when something has already happened."

For many in Japan, it's already too late.

Kidnappings of children are up 25 percent since 2001, and a spate of lurid killings — one girl's body was stuffed in a box, another was stabbed a dozen times in the chest — have horrified a nation where parents dote on offspring well into adulthood.

Despite the chilling headlines, overall crimes against children have declined 20 percent since 2001, National Police Agency figures show. Murders shot up 17 percent from 2001 to 2004, but then sharply dropped in 2005 when 151 Japanese under age 20 were murder victims.

It's difficult to compare Japan's murder rate among the young with other countries since statistics are kept differently and populations vary greatly. In the United States, 1,570 youngsters up to age 17 were killed in 2005; in Britain, 58 youngsters under age 16 were killed in 2004-05.

Elaborate, high-security parks in Japan are part of a wider trend to keep a closer eye on children. Patrol guards have been posted along kids' routes to school and some parents are even fitting their children's backpacks with GPS devices and safety buzzers.

Indeed, the parks illustrate just how far Japanese parents will go to keep their children out of harm's way.

Mothers bringing their children to Fantasy Kids Resort have to fill out application forms and present IDs for annual membership. About 20 uniformed staff members watch over the children and 16 security cameras hang from the ceilings.

Visitors also have to check their shoes in a foot locker — for security as well as hygienic reasons.

"It prevents crime because you can't run away barefoot," said Satoru Hagiwara, president of Fantasyresort Co., operator of the park.

The staff is fastidious about cleanliness.

Mothers who arrive with strollers are asked to wipe the wheels with anti-bacterial soap. The park's big sand box uses sterilized sand. Even though it is free of dog or cat waste — a pet-peeve among parents of young children — workers still sift the sand every day to weed out any objects.

Everything is aimed at safety. Even the play sets are inflatable to avoid any injury.

The rigorous approach appears to be paying off: Some 250,000 people visited the park from its opening in November through the end of May. Parents and kids pay 420 yen, or about $3.65, each for the first hour and 210 yen, or $1.80, for every additional half hour.

Some experts, however, say the safety mania has gone too far.

Koichiro Fujita, a professor of tropical medicine at Tokyo Medical and Dental University with a specialty in studying parasites, said anti-bacterial sand is unnecessary and could even be harmful by killing off bacteria that protect the skin.

"Children should be exposed to nature, breathe in fresh air, and have contact with animals," he said. "Playing inside weakens your immune system."

Indeed, Japanese mothers are an extremely vigilant group and can often be heard shouting "abunai" — "dangerous" — at their children for something as harmless as skipping down the sidewalk or pressing the buttons on a vending machine.

While some find the precautions among Japanese excessive, operators of Fantasy Kids Resort and other parks defend their actions, saying the environment surrounding children is getting more and more menacing.

"Children no longer play outside because play sets are dangerous and the parks are dangerous and dirty, and strangers are also around," Hagiwara said.

Following Fantasy Kids Resort's apparent success, the operator wants to open more than 30 outlets in Japan over the next five years. Other companies have their own plans.

Of course, the indoor venues also offer the same perks as regular parks — fun for children and relaxation for their busy parents.

"The kids are happy because there are so many things to play with," said Misato Kimura, 34, who came with her 6-year-old son. "And it's fun for the adults because we can chat."

CountryWatch: Japan