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Asia Monday, 7 January, 2002, 15:22 GMT
Japan cracks down on youth crime

By Hugh Levinson

Ruriko Take stands at a lectern and tells stories about her son, Takakazu. About how he coped with health problems, about his ambitions at his school in Osaka, his hero-worship of Hide, the star of the flamboyant Japanese rock group X. Stories of an ordinary Japanese teenager growing up in the 1990s.

Listen to this programme in full

And then she tells her audience how Takakazu was murdered four years ago by a group of teenage boys. How the police and the courts - following procedures laid down by Japan's Juvenile Law - completely excluded her family from their investigation and decisions.

How she later discovered that only one of the killers had been prosecuted and he had only gone to reform school for less than a year.

Mrs. Take's outrage over what happened led her to set up a group campaigning for the rights of crime victims. They have been remarkably effective. The government has revised the Juvenile Law for the first time since it was passed 50 years ago, during the allied Occupation.

As of April 2001, victims will get more information about what happens in Family Courts, which try most teenage criminals. Victims will also for the first time be allowed to make statements to the court.

ruriko take
Ruriko Take's son was murdered by teenagers

More controversially, the age at which young offenders can be tried in the criminal courts will go down from 16 to 14. And teenage murderers will in principle be tried like adults.

Punishment is sometimes necessary, says Kenji Ikegami, a lawyer supporting Mrs. Take, to let them (young criminals) know what they have done. Surveys suggest most Japanese would agree, especially after a series of brutal and highly publicised murders by youngsters.

But there are dissenting voices. Hiroko Goto, a professor of law at Fuji College, says many of the assumptions behind the revision to the law are incorrect. She points that although crime - including youth crime - has been rising for the last three or four years, crime rates were actually higher in the 1980s and much higher in the 1960s.

She argues that in practice the new law is unlikely to prove a deterrent to the kind of disturbed children who commit the most serious offences.

Some argue that it is even possible to rehabilitate the Kobe killer, a 14 year old boy from Kobe who killed a younger boy and cut off his head

Indeed, imposing tougher sentences may even prove counterproductive, turning misguided children into hardened criminals, according to defence lawyer Yoshikuni Noguchi.

Four years ago he defended Japan's most vilified young criminal, a 14-year-old from Kobe who at the age of 14 killed a younger boy and cut off his head. Mr. Noguchi argues that virtually all young criminals can be rehabilitated - even the Kobe killer.

He's a supporter of the old Juvenile Law, which emphasises rehabilitation over punishment. As a result, relatively few young criminals in Japan are detained, and they are usually kept not in prisons but in Juvenile Training Schools. I was taken to see the oldest of them, the Tama Juvenile Training School at Hachioji in the suburbs of Tokyo.

Kenji Ikegami
Lawyer Kenji Ikegami says punishment can be necessary

There are 200 boys here, who live highly regimented lives, with a busy schedule of classes, exercise, assemblies and group discussions.

Vocational training is also strong, with classes in metalwork, computer skills, construction techniques and - bizarrely - handling of dangerous substances. I was impressed to hear that the training is evidently effective, as 40% of the boys find jobs before they leave.

There is also a strong emphasis on reflection and contemplation. Each boy writes in a diary each day, which is read and commented on by his personal teacher, who also acts as a counsellor.

I was not allowed to speak to the boys directly, but I later met a young man who had been detained at Tama after a series of violent assaults.

He told me that he had been reformed thanks to the personal care and instruction of his teacher, Mr. Yamada, who had made him realise the harm he had caused to his victims. My parents are dead, he told me, and in some sense Mr. Yamada was like a father to me.

After leaving the school, he was also lucky enough to receive an exceptional level of personal attention while on probation. This was thanks to his probation officer - who is one of the 48,000 volunteers who do the vast majority of probation casework in Japan. By comparison, there are fewer than 1000 professional probation officers.

Hiroko Goto
Professor Hiroko Goto says crime rates were higher in the 1960s
And this offender, like the majority of former inmates of the school, he has not reoffended. Only around 24% of those released from Juvenile Training Schools commit further crimes, according to Kayo Konagai, a professional probation officer. There are questions over the validity of this statistic, as young offenders in Japan are not tracked into adulthood, when they may reoffend.

If it is even roughly correct, however, it suggests that Japan's methods of treating young criminals are remarkably effective by international standards - and also that Japan should perhaps think carefully before abandoning a system that has served it relatively well.

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: a look at the ultimate gizmo for dealing with annoying mobile phone conversations, a visit to a sacred mountain threatened by a road project and a chance to experience the ultimate in relaxation - a traditional Japanese bath.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Japanese students
give their views on the generation gap
Yoshikuni Noguchi
99.9% of young criminals can be rehabilitated.
Mariko Kuno Fujiwara:
Kids think "the world is built around me!"
Masako
discusses the role of the media in covering youth crime
See also:

17 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
09 Feb 01 | Education
03 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Links to more Asia stories are at the foot of the page.


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