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Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2001

Purse-snatching capital not image Osaka seeks


Staff writer

OSAKA -- Yoko Sumino (not her real name) was scared and angry. One evening last winter, the 34-year-old journalist was walking back to her apartment in the city's Joto Ward when the unexpected happened.

News photo
Signs like the one on the left warning passersby of purse-snatchers are springing up all over Osaka, the nation's purse-snatching capital.

"I heard a motorbike approaching from behind but I didn't think anything about it. The next thing I knew, it had pulled up beside me and a young guy grabbed my purse. I tried to resist, but he yanked it off my shoulder and sped away," she recalled. Police, she added, were of little help and indicated that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find the thief.

Osaka cops are said to be indifferent to purse-snatchings partially because there are so many. In fact, for the past quarter-century, Osaka has led the nation in reported cases of this particular crime.

In the first nine months of this year alone, 8,005 purse-snatchings were reported throughout the prefecture -- just over one-fifth of the nation's total. Police charged 637 people with purse-snatching during the same period.

Now the clamor for something to be done about it is growing. The trouble is that, with theories about the root of the problem so varied, people have very different ideas about remedies.

City officials and some police officers say that Osaka's geographic layout, with its narrow and winding streets that allow for a quick getaway, is to blame. Their suggested solution? Redesign the streets and tear down the cramped and crowded neighborhoods, putting up modern buildings with open spaces.

Others, including social workers, cite the growing number of homeless people wandering the streets, currently estimated to be around 10,000, combined with the Kinki region's unemployment rate of 6.1 percent, the highest in the nation, as the main causes.

And then there are those like Sumino who blame the problem on political leaders who don't actually live in the city.

"Osaka politicians and bureaucrats, for the most part, go home at night to quiet, wealthy suburbs that are quite safe," Sumino said. "They're isolated from ordinary Osakans and have no idea how dangerous the streets really are."

Some in the local business community are also realizing that 25 years of headlines about being the nation's leader in purse-snatchings is bad for business. At the end of October, the Kansai Committee for Economic Development presented to local officials a series of proposals to combat the crime.

These include increasing the number of cops, changing the law so juvenile purse-snatchers can be charged as adults, and relaxing firearms restrictions for police.

In addition, the committee wants immigration laws to be revised so that foreigners with criminal records are denied entry into Japan.

"The worsening public safety situation damages Osaka's ability to attract international business, and we in the business community have a responsibility to work with officials to combat this problem," said committee head Kazuo Tsuda when the report was released.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the proposal is for ex-police officers and others with security experience to be hired by the prefecture to work at public junior high schools. Citing the rising number of purse-snatchings and other crimes involving junior high school students, the committee said this would be an effective way to combat juvenile delinquency.

Some local teachers, however, disagree.

"All that putting security guards in the school will do is create an atmosphere of fear among the students and negatively affect their concentration. It won't reduce the number of crimes committed after school," said Toshie Kikune, a junior high teacher in Osaka's Kyobashi district.

"This sounds suspiciously like a scheme to provide retired police officers with jobs at taxpayers' expense," she added.

Still, for those who have been victims of purse snatchers, the committee's proposals make sense.

"Police definitely needed to crack down on purse-snatching, and more officers are needed. Most of the committee's proposals should be discussed seriously by government officials," Sumino said.



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