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Friday, Sept. 7, 2001

MATTER OF COURSE

WATCH OUT, CRIMINALS!

PTA anticrime patrols send clear message


What in the world could bring proper PTA moms and former gang members together in the same room? I found out last April, when I showed up for a PTA event at the Japanese elementary school my children attend.

One of the functions of our PTA is to organize monthly anticrime patrols. Since there was nothing like this at our school in the United States, I was curious and signed up for the first patrol of the school year.

Arriving at the designated meeting place, I felt as if I had been transported back to my days commuting on the New York City subway. There in the room were two Guardian Angels!

As anyone who has lived in New York knows, the Guardian Angels are volunteers who patrol the subway system to prevent crime. Members of the group are streetwise toughs, often former gang members who have changed their ways and joined the good guys in the fight against evil. They are easily recognizable by their trademark red berets and their fierce demeanor as they ride the subways in small patrols.

In 1996, Japanese volunteers founded the Tokyo branch of the Guardian Angels. The group now has about 300 members who patrol at night in Ikebukuro, Shibuya, Shinjuku and other areas troubled by crime. They also help school PTAs and civic groups form anticrime patrols.

The Guardian Angels who came to our school that morning looked pretty tough. One told me he used to be in a youth gang. Many members have been on the wrong side of the law, he said.

When all the PTA moms were assembled, a Guardian Angel gave us a brief lecture about the value of neighborhood patrols. Japanese used to look out for their neighbors and freely scold wrongdoers. These days, he said, too many Japanese are afraid to speak up. They just look the other way. Guardian Angels want Tokyo residents to be proactive again about protecting their neighborhoods.

We put on green "anticrime patrol" armbands and set out with gloves and garbage bags. At the park near the school, the Guardian Angels showed us how to look in garbage bins for evidence of drinking. We checked the public toilet for graffiti or signs of drug use. We discussed polite yet effective ways to speak up to high school students smoking in the park ("At the very least, please do not smoke when small children are around").

We left the park and picked up garbage as we walked through the neighborhood. We stopped at a large parking lot near the school and discussed a dangerous slope at one end. The PTA tried to get the slope fenced so children can't fall down it, but the owner refused. Our leader noted in the patrol log that parents should caution children not to play in the parking lot.

Moving on, we checked whether doors of unoccupied buildings were locked. Children could be pulled into empty apartments if doors aren't kept bolted, the Guardian Angels explained. At the end of the patrol hour, we stopped by the neighborhood police box to inquire about recent crime in the area. It was during this discussion that I learned the Japanese word for "indecent exposure" (roshutsu).

Families are asked to join a patrol at least once a year, and the patrols are scheduled for various times and days of the week, including Saturday, so as many people as possible can participate. In June, 15 PTA members, two Guardian Angels and a local police officer went on the patrol. Last year, 60 people showed up for one patrol, overwhelming the parent in charge.

Our PTA has other programs to promote neighborhood safety. Shopkeepers and parents who are home during the day put stickers on their doors so children know they can seek help there. This program, called kodomo hyakutoban (110 is the emergency telephone number), has been in place for several years in all 20 elementary schools in our ward in central Tokyo. Many communities in Japan have similar programs.

The PTA also recruits volunteers to attach a sign to their bicycles declaring that they are "on anticrime patrol." I signed up and got a bright yellow sign. No special responsibilities are involved; I'm just supposed to have the sign visible as I cycle around on my regular errands.

Since I'm a foreigner, my sign tends to draw curious looks from passersby. Sometimes I feel selfconscious, but I am a little more vigilant.

Nevertheless I found it hard to believe that just having a sign on my bike could improve neighborhood safety. Since my sign states that the bike patrols are supported by the local police, I stopped by our police station to inquire.

A community relations officer told me that studies in other parts of Japan have documented a drop in crime rates when residents patrol. In our neighborhood, police have noticed fewer fushinsha (suspicious individuals) since the school started its anticrime patrols, she told me.

How does this work? Residents are more likely to speak up about problems if they've been on patrol or even seen others patrolling, the officer explained. The patrols also send a signal that the neighborhood cares about safety, making at least petty criminals think twice about doing wrong in the area.

Our PTA seems to be unusually active in anticrime activities, but many other schools have similar programs.

After June 9, when a knife-wielding intruder killed eight children at Ikeda Elementary School in Osaka, schools throughout Japan stepped up security.

At our school, all visitors, including parents, must now sign in and wear badges when they are inside the school. We were reminded to keep the front gate latched. The front door is kept locked except at arrival and dismissal times. Teachers were given portable emergency alarms they must keep on their person at all times, and staff members take turns patrolling the grounds during school hours.

My bet is that more schools have started patrols since the incident at Ikeda Elementary. Although many people feel Japan isn't as safe as it used to be, it is still the safest place I've ever lived. My experience on patrol reminded me that a safe society doesn't just happen. It takes effort and involvement by all citizens.

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


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