Keeping track

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 November, 2003, 12:00am

Years ago, when a foreign visitor asked about the safety of young children commuting alone on trains to far-away prestigious private schools, I laughed it off. Japan was a safe country, I bragged, where people did not need to worry much about crime. Alas, that has changed. Since the early 1990s, the number of child abductions has risen alarmingly.

Now, there are more than 200 such cases a year, double the number of the 1980s. This year, up to the end of September, 175 abductions had been reported - with 31 in that month alone. Many children are snatched in open, public places - often from their own community, which is supposed to be a traditionally safe environment.

Several cases have made parents nervous, including the news in July that a 13-year-old boy had taken and killed an infant in the centre of Nagasaki City. Four 12-year-old girls from a Tokyo suburb were locked up by a stranger in a flat in Shibuya, a downtown area popular among the young, while another girl, who disappeared in Osaka in May, is still missing.

Now, an increasing number of parent-teacher associations and schools are organising commuting groups and volunteering to patrol neighborhoods. Children are taught to be careful around strangers. Others, meanwhile, are turning to technology, and giving their children a satellite global-positioning system (GPS), more commonly used as a navigation aid in vehicles.

About 45,000 families have signed up to use the system to protect their children, and now account for more than 20 per cent of GPS users. A child carries a tiny handset transmitter, which signals the person's location via satellite to a receiver at the security firm. Parents can track their child's movements by logging on to a special website.

Security companies are now competing to sell their services to private schools, which are considering providing every student with a device. Murakami city, in northern Niigata prefecture, has even started offering financial assistance to parents who wish to buy the GPS service. A number of other cities are considering following suit.

But can technology ultimately prevent child abduction? It may be a useful tool, but the most effective prevention may lie elsewhere - like in a more open society, where people care for each other (and their children), and educate them in how to survive in an increasingly hostile society.