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Rising Crime Drives Japanese to Fight Back With Gizmos

Asia: Fed up with the police, public turns to security robots, special locks and panic rooms.

September 03, 2002|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — By the standards of industrialized countries, Japan is incredibly safe. Few areas are too dangerous to walk at night, lost purses and wallets generally are returned with valuables intact, and missing bicycles often turn up the next day, after being "borrowed" by drunken businessmen.

So why are security-conscious Japanese snapping up high-end locks, robots and panic rooms at a record pace?

Because everything is relative, and crime in Japan has spiked in recent years--albeit from a low base.

"Japan always seemed like such a safe country," Akito Masunaga, 45, a trading company executive, said recently after installing extra locks in his house. "Now it's a country surrounded by fear."

Although Japan saw only 1,985 crimes per 100,000 people in 2000, according to Interpol statistics--which is less than half the 4,123 in the U.S.--that represents a 25% rise over 1995 levels. During the same five-year period, the U.S. experienced a slight decline.

Throw in several high-profile attacks and mounting police scandals, and it's easy to see why Japanese are lapping up security equipment, services and gizmos in a quest for peace of mind.

Kaori Sano, a 31-year-old employee of an apparel company, returned to her Tokyo apartment late one night in July to find her door ajar and her VCR, computer and watches gone.

Police informed her that she was the fourth person in her building to be robbed in recent weeks. Officers showed little interest in catching the thief, she said, focusing instead on playing down the value of her stolen items in an apparent bid to make politically sensitive crime figures look smaller.

A National Police Agency official denied any such practice and said the real problem is a lack of personnel. "Crime rates just keep rising, and the officers can't keep up," said the official, requesting anonymity.

Sano hoped that her landlord would install a high-end magnetic tumbler lock, but he added only another ordinary lock--and even that took three weeks. Now Sano is considering spending hundreds of dollars on additional safety devices, provided she can figure out which offer the greatest security.

"I always considered my neighborhood a good place for women living alone," she said. "Now that something's happened to me, I feel so vulnerable."

Exact statistics on how much Japanese are spending on security products and services aren't available, but analysts say the amount is growing by leaps and bounds. Secom, Japan's largest security company, says its home-protection business is expanding 20% annually. Demand for Miwa Lock Co.'s high-end cylinders has tripled in the last two years, while Asahi Glass reports strong interest in tempered panes, which are much stronger than regular windows.

The rate of theft in many categories has doubled in the last five years, and experts say several factors related to Japan's changing lifestyle are behind the increase.

The breakdown of the extended family leaves houses unoccupied most of the day. Impersonal city life blunts the protection neighbors provided until relatively recently in close-knit communities, while Japan's aging society means that more people are vulnerable to attack. Finally, rising unemployment is prompting more people to turn to crime.

"Security is no longer something that can be taken for granted," said Norihiko Yoshida, an official with Secom. "It's no longer something that comes for free."

Experts say the Japanese mind-set started to change after 1995, when the devastating Kobe earthquake and a sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway made many people feel insecure. Although murder rates have not risen in recent years, high-profile crimes have undercut people's confidence.

In July, a 16-year-old girl was kidnapped and killed in Gunma prefecture, and the manager of a Tokyo convenience store was stabbed to death by an auto thief trying to steal $5 worth of food.

Although Japan has had nothing like the rash of high-profile child abductions that have so rattled U.S. parents recently, it has had a few. Generally, they've been committed by acquaintances of the child's family trying to obtain a ransom to pay off crippling debts.

Secom and toy maker Tomy have teamed up on a global positioning system that allows parents to track their children over the Internet for $4 a month. Though it's not clear what happens if the kidnapper throws away the device, Secom will send a team after a missing child--for $80 an hour.

In the face of a growing public outcry, authorities have reduced the age at which people can be tried as adults to 14 from 20, installed security cameras in high-crime neighborhoods such as Tokyo's Kabukicho and promised crime-busting countermeasures.

But public trust in Japan's scandal-plagued law enforcement has dropped as crime has spiked.

"People are skeptical the police will handle their complaint seriously," said Susumu Oda, professor of criminal psychiatry at Tezukayama Gakuin University.

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