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Friday, April 20, 2001



Walking to school just like the big kids do

Japanese school children get to and from school by themselves. No school buses. No car pools. No parent chaperones.

That doesn't mean, however, that children are totally on their own on Japan's narrow and congested streets. Schools take an active role in protecting students on the walk between home and school.

In many parts of Japan, schools organize children into neighborhood groups that must commute together. These groups can be highly organized and regimented. Children must be at the meeting point at a specified time. Generally, a mother waits with the group until everyone is there. If one member doesn't show up, the group waits while the mother goes to the child's home to inquire if he's going to school that day. Once the group sets off, older students are expected to look out for the younger ones.

But this practice, called shudan toko (going to school in groups) and shudan geko (leaving school in groups), has fallen out of favor in some areas, including Tokyo. Parents objected to being accountable to their neighbors for getting kids out of the house on time, and many schools have dropped the practice.

Traffic safety instruction (kotsu anzen shido) is taught in virtually every school in the country. The curriculum varies from school to school, but lessons usually cover the safe way to cross the street or ride a bicycle.

Schools can decide how much instruction is necessary according to local conditions. Schools in big cities generally put more emphasis on traffic safety than schools in rural areas. Many schools organize special traffic safety assemblies, often inviting a police officer in to speak to the students.

At the public elementary school my children attend, the lessons on traffic safety began even before classes started. As the parent of an incoming first-grader, I was given a detailed map of the school district. The map pointed out dangerous spots including crossings with no traffic lights and curves where drivers have poor visibility.

The map also identified approved routes, called tsugakuro, deemed by the school to be relatively free of hazards. Such streets have a yellow sign depicting two children walking to warn drivers to keep an eye out for schoolchildren.

The school instructed parents to set one of these approved routes for their children, and walk it with them many times before school started. We were to point out specific hazards and teach the children how to avoid them.

For the first month or so of school, first graders leave school in small groups organized according to the direction in which they commute. A school employee walks with the children at least part of the way home, reviewing safety rules and pointing out dangers.

At major intersections near the school, a crossing guard supervises students. Such guards are usually referred to as shuji-san, or, if a woman, midori no obasan (green auntie, presumably because of the green and white armband they often wear).

Despite such efforts, accidents do happen. In Tokyo alone, 1,313 elementary school children were hit by cars last year. Of those, 495 (nearly 40 percent) were first graders, sad proof that it is the youngest students who are the most vulnerable in traffic.

The main causes of such accidents, police say, are children crossing the street improperly and jumping out suddenly in front of cars. Young children simply don't understand the danger traffic poses and are too absorbed in their play to pay attention to passing cars.

This means that drivers need to keep a close eye out for children.

Many school districts make this easier by requiring first graders to wear a bright yellow hat when walking to and from school. A yellow hat signals drivers that the child is inexperienced in traffic safety.

Japanese children learn to raise their right hand when crossing the street to make themselves more visible to drivers. If you are driving and see a small child standing at a crosswalk with his hand raised, you should stop and wait until the child is safely across the street.

Most Japanese parents will tell you that it is a good thing to allow children to get to school on their own because it fosters independence.

But parents who worry nonetheless may buy their child an amulet from a Shinto shrine. Most shrines sell amulets called kotsu-anzen o-mamori to protect against traffic accidents. It's not uncommon to see one of these amulets hanging from a child's backpack: a few hundred yen's worth of spiritual insurance.

Alice Gordenker is a Tokyo-based writer and the mother of two American children attending Japanese public elementary school.

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