Kit Nagamura finds out ways to keep your children safe in the city

CHANCES ARE news stories toward the end of 2004 and even into the New Year have made you pause with horror, and feel great sorrow for the families of all-too-young victims. In the aftermath of vicious crimes or natural disasters — once we get past the shock — we look for something to learn. Knowledge, we hope, can at least better the odds next time. And it can. Hundreds of people saw the sea recede from their beach in India last December, and actually recognized that circumstance to be the harbinger of a tsunami. They immediately fled to higher ground, and survived.

Tokyo is thought to be one of the safest cities in the world for children, and I have found it a wonderful place to bring up mine. However, in light of recent kidnapping incidents and reported attempts, it seems a good time to review safety precautions. Talking to parents and educators, I found a wide variety of responses — everything from “kids should run and scream if a stranger even approaches them” to “it’s better not to talk about stuff like this because it scares children” to “if your kids have common sense, you’ll be fine.” But what exactly is common sense? Different for each parent, educator, and child, I would venture. And, while not exactly a receding sea, the shift in local approach to safety issues might be a sign to watch.

According to the Daily Yomiuri, 33 percent of all schools in Japan have recently passed out “anticrime alarms” to their students (that includes 73.3 percent of Tokyo’s public schools), and over 45 percent have set up security and surveillance systems, and some have provided children with emergency cellphones. A huge majority of schools plan anticrime drills before the end of this school year. There even have been suggestions that children be implanted with GPS chips (already a routine deal with pets, BTW).

In the box below are tips and suggestions I culled, which sound like reasonable precautions for kids in a large city. The list might seem overly cautious for a city like Tokyo, but remember that you don’t want your child exclusively Tokyo-friendly; you may visit other cities some day.

As parents, each of us has to make decisions about which safety issues to teach our children. The ideas below are pretty much “common sense,” at least for adults, but you’d be surprised — or maybe not — by how differently, and how innocently — your children perceive the world. Here’s to a safe and fun year!


Have children travel in pairs or groups when possible, and have them watch out for one another.
If your child absolutely has to walk alone, make sure it is not after dark and choose a well-traveled street with generous sidewalks. Remind your children to keep as far from car traffic as possible, to wear bright clothing and shoes they can run in, and have them check in with you, en route, by phone (e.g., “Mom, I’m at the Lawson’s right now. Be home in ten minutes.”)
If your child regularly commutes alone, make an effort to court friends you can trust along the route and in your neighborhood. Shop owners can be particularly observant (they’re looking for business, after all). You might want to establish a routine whereby your child stops in somewhere each time, to offer a greeting or make a small purchase for breakfast, etc. A little haven, from someone following too closely or even bad weather, may be invaluable.
Have a one-button emergency call number on your child’s cellphone. In addition, make sure your child has memorized home phone numbers and carries a phone card (many phones don’t accept coins anymore).
Teach “stranger danger.” This is to say, when on their own, children should pretty much avoid anyone they don’t know exceedingly well. If lost, your child should know whom it is safe to ask for help (e.g. store manager, park employee etc.)
Make it a hard and fast rule never, ever to get in the car of an unknown person, no matter what. Many mothers I spoke to thought this the most crucial safety  guideline for Tokyo. If someone in a car asks for directions, for example, make sure your child directs them to an adult, instead of moving close to the car, where they might be grabbed. In addition, even when accepting rides from people they know well, make it policy for your child to check in with you first.
Chose a “secret code word or phrase” that is hilarious or wacky enough that it would never come up in general conversation, but you and your child can remember easily. A common ploy is for would-be kidnappers to come along and say to a child, “Your parents have been in an accident. I’ll drive you to them.” Without the secret code word, your child will not fall for this trick. I’ve tested the technique, and tried to get my friend’s son to come over to my house. Nothing doing until I uttered the code word, “Slimebucket.” The boy looked at me with astonishment, and then came home with me.
Practice scenarios such as the above with your child. Recognize that shy children often take longer to build up assertiveness. Be as tricky and persistent as you dare (without freaking out your child, of course).

In role-playing, you can impart your interpretation of when and where to draw the line on various things. What about the old woman in the park who asks your daughter where she’s from? Is it okay to answer? What if the bakery guy offers your son a free danish? Throw it away immediately, or bring it home? You can deal with bullying and bogus phone calls and how to answer the door. Remember to switch roles, too — you might discover scenarios you hadn’t even thought of yet.