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Thursday, June 23, 2005

Osaka 'curfew' plan rife with problems

Theaters, karaoke boxes alarmed by proposal for 7 p.m. teenager ban

Staff writer

OSAKA — It's a Saturday evening in early 2006, and four Osaka-area 15-year-old friends, Kenji, Taro, Yoko and Yuka, show up at a theater to see the latest movie. The time is 6:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the movie starts.

News photo
High school students gather at an Osaka game arcade earlier this month. ERIC JOHNSTON PHOTO

The woman in the ticket booth asks to see some identification.

"Sorry, you're all 15 years old and this movie starts at 7 p.m. We can't let you in," she says.

Disappointed, the four decide to go to a game center and a karaoke box for a couple of hours. But again, they're denied entrance because they are all 15 years old and it's now past 7 p.m.

If Osaka Prefecture has its way, these hypothetical situations could soon become reality.

In September, the prefectural assembly will debate proposals that would ban people under 16 years old from entering movie theaters, game centers, karaoke boxes and Internet cafes after 7 p.m.

Osaka would be the first prefecture in Japan to ban kids under 16 from entering entertainment establishments at such an early hour.

Keeping teenagers out of trouble is one of the reasons cited for the new proposals, which are part of a final report submitted by a committee to the prefecture last week. But another reason is to encourage parents and children to spend more time at home with each other.

"If this proposal becomes law, it will hopefully encourage parents and children to communicate with each other more," said Mika Yoshizawa, a spokeswoman from the prefecture's lifestyle and culture division, which is responsible for child welfare issues.

Shuhei Nishino, a member of the prefectural assembly from Supremacy Osaka, a small political party, supports the proposals but notes that it isn't just 15-year-olds who might have to be home early.

"There are two curfew proposals. The first is that those under 16 be banned from entertainment establishments after 7 p.m., and the second is that those under 18 be banned after 10 p.m. Those establishments that don't enforce the ban would be fined," he said.

But Nishino and Yoshizawa admit a host of practical questions about the proposals remain unanswered.

Will all establishments be forced to check IDs? Will theaters allow those under 15 to enter if a show starts at 6:55 p.m.? What if a film finishes after 7 p.m.?

"These are the kinds of questions the prefectural assembly will likely raise once we take up the debate, formally, in September," Nishino said.

Cinemas are less worried about a drastic drop in business than they are about the steps they would have to take to enforce a ban.

"I wonder if we're going to be required to check the IDs of everyone we think is underage. That could take a while and, at busy times, irritate other customers waiting in line," said Ayami Saito, who works at a cinema in Umeda.

Karaoke box managers are also upset with the plan.

Yoshinobu Ueda, chairman of the Osaka Karaoke Box Association, which consists of 274 karaoke booth operators in the prefecture, and a member of the committee, said he was taken by surprise when its final report recommended the strict ban.

"There was some mention of a strict curfew for karaoke boxes, but discussions were more on controlling Internet pornography and other issues," Ueda said. "I was surprised to see the recommendation of the curfew in the final report."

He said the industry recognizes there are problems, and pointed out that his group has adopted a set of ethical standards that are even stricter than those proposed by the committee.

"Our members put up posters in their establishments asking that customers under 16 years old not use karaoke rooms after 6 p.m.," he said.

But Ueda argues that introducing a unified national standard for teens using karaoke boxes is more important than a prefectural curfew.

"Each prefecture has its own rules and regulations governing when karaoke boxes can be rented out to minors. We need a national unified standard, which will be fair to all karaoke box operators and make enforcement easier," he said.

Besides the ban, the report has nearly two dozen recommendations, including restrictions on the sale and distribution of pornographic books, videos and adult toys to minors.

But most of them stopped short of offering specific steps, such as keeping pornography in Internet or "manga" (cartoon) cafes under lock and key unless customers produce legal identification, a practice observed in similar places in the United States.

Regarding the sale of pornographic materials, for example, the recommendations only said, "a variety of pornographic materials sold at vending machines should be restricted."

There are also recommendations for strengthening police powers, so authorities may enter establishments to check for underage customers. Under the current system, police must have probable cause to enter an establishment.

But despite the committee's concerns that entertainment centers are a cause of juvenile delinquency, no police statistics on the number or type of juvenile crimes at such establishments was available for the committee's deliberations. In fact, the report notes that juvenile crime overall declined 14.9 percent between 2003 and 2004, and says that nearly half of juvenile crimes occurred in the late evening or early morning hours, long after the proposed bans.

"Despite the various problems with the proposals, they will serve as a first step, a base for addressing more specific problems, like the sale of pornography to minors," Nishino said.

And what do those most directly affected by the proposed bans think about them?

"Seven is too early. My cram school doesn't finish until 6 p.m., and I don't usually meet my friends until after that," said Misa Yoshimura, 15, who goes to school in Osaka's Higashi Umeda district, home to a large number of karaoke boxes, Internet cafes and movie theaters.

When told the law is also designed for kids and parents to spend more time together, she said it is not likely to work.

"My friends and I stay away from the manga cafes because there's lots of weird guys in them. But if we're not allowed into a karaoke box or a game center, I suppose we'll meet in a cheap restaurant or a park, or figure out something else.

"I'm not staying at home with my parents if all my friends are going out," she said.

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