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One panicked father called . . . to locate his daughter after she failed to call to wish him a happy birthday. : Businessman Offers to Pull Apron Strings Across the Pacific

March 26, 1994|SUSAN MOFFAT

Philip Marlowe he's not. Ron Hasegawa's proposed stock in trade is snooping on students to see if they are going to class, doing their homework, and making the right kind of friends. His clients, he hopes, will be worried parents an ocean away in Japan.

With tales of crime and violence in the United States frequently dominating headlines in Tokyo, some parents worry that their offspring might encounter more than just cultural enrichment during their year abroad.

To the rescue is Hasegawa, who has founded a company dedicated to helping keep Japanese exchange students safe from crime--and from their own lapses of judgment.

Although Hasegawa says his representative in Tokyo, Tomizawa Masayuki, has received dozens of inquiries after the company was written about in the Japanese press, he has not signed any contracts yet.

Skeptics in this county are not surprised.

"Frankly, I certainly don't think anything like that is useful. They're probably preying on the concerns of parents," said William Cassell, dean of international studies at Santa Monica College, which has 600 students from Japan.

This month, Hasegawa hung a shingle--or rather, advertised a fax number--for a company called Intersec, a private monitoring service dedicated to maintaining apron strings across the Pacific.

He says there is a genuine need for the service. Not long ago, Hasegawa, who is a Los Angeles Police Department reserve officer, helped bust a Little Tokyo prostitution ring by posing as a john. He was shocked to find that 16 of the 22 young women arrested were students from Japan.

Hasegawa began to suspect that many parents did not have much of an idea what their children were doing in the United States. For years, he had been informally keeping an eye on the children of Japanese friends when they came to this country to study, but now he thought there might be a need for a formalized watchdog service.

For planeloads of students from Japan, a year abroad in Southern California is a chance to learn English, meet people, practice surfing or driving a convertible--and get away from the watchful eyes of mom and dad. But with images of drive-by shootings and nice girls gone wild dancing in their heads, some parents may want to have a better idea of what their children are up to here.

Now, for $3,000 a year, Intersec's staff will brief college and high school students on safety issues, drugs and AIDS, and check in weekly, monthly, and at each semester's end to chat with students at their lodgings. They will hang around and see what kind of roommates the student has, whether they are going to class, how their grades are and whether they look like they are getting enough sleep. Then they report to the parents in Japan.

Grace Kikuchi, manager of the Los Angeles office of ICS, a student exchange consulting firm, says that while students abroad are blithely enjoying their newfound freedoms and opportunities, parents sometimes feel separation anxiety. One panicked father called her office to locate his daughter after she failed to call to wish him a happy birthday. It turns out she had forgotten.

It might seem that parents could call their children and ask how they are doing rather than paying a consultant to do it. But Hasegawa says some parents cannot communicate with their children. Although many teen-agers who come on well-established exchange programs are excellent students, others "are kind of dropouts, who couldn't make it in the system in Japan. So the parents and kids are so embarrassed," Hasegawa said. "The easiest way out is to send them to an American high school."

The roster of experts Hasegawa lists in his promotional pamphlet as his advisers is impressive--retired CIA and State Department officials, a retired sheriff's deputy and a couple of members of the Los Angeles Police Department's Asian crimes investigation section. The weekly checkups would be done by moonlighting college counselors and fellow Japanese students. But the big guns will be there to offer help if the client's child runs into trouble, he said. Hasegawa says that as a reserve LAPD officer he has seen plenty of reason for parents to worry. He has seen Japanese students get in trouble driving drunk and developing cocaine habits that force them to turn to burglary to supplement their monthly stipends from home. Some students keep their whereabouts secret from their parents by collecting their monthly wire transfers at a post office box. Some tumble into working in the nether world of mizushobai-- "the water trade"--hostess bars, restaurants and karaoke dens popular with Japanese expatriates.

Last year, more than 40,000 students entered the United States from Japan, up from 17,000 10 years earlier. But in the last couple of years, fear of crime in the United States is among the factors that have helped slow the flow of Japanese students to this country.

In 1992, a Japanese high school student, decked out in a John Travolta disco costume, was shot dead when he knocked on the door of the wrong house in Louisiana, looking for a Halloween party. Then, in August, 1993, the shooting death of another Japanese student at a Concord, Calif., train station further raised worries.

Regardless of America's dangers, real and imagined, the reaction among Japanese students in California to Intersec's proposed service is less than enthusiastic.

Takanori Hirai, 23, a student at El Camino College, says that hiring a watchdog for one's offspring defeats the purpose of sending them abroad. "(Students) left their parents in Japan and want to do something without their parents' eyes looking at them. Maybe they play around and waste their parents' money here. But eventually they'll learn many things here."

"Students are their parents' kids, but they're also human beings," he said.

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