JAPAN. The discovery of a boy's severed head outside a school in Kobe and the subsequent arrest of a 14-year-old in connection with the murder has brought teenage delinquency sharply into focus.
Although it is still rare, many Japanese see the rapid rise in youth crime as behind the death of Jun Hase in June. The country's education ministry is now so jittery about the perceived rise in juvenile crime that it is exchanging personnel with the police.
The National Police Agency, which is advising the ministry, says rising crime can be attributed to the spread of drugs and increasing prostitution among minors.
The number of robberies by high-school students has risen dramatically in Japan since 1993. High-school students now commit more crimes, especially robbery, than unemployed teenagers - previously the most troublesome category.
From January to June last year, 140 senior-high students were arrested for robbery. This marks a 36 per cent surge over numbers for the same six-month period in 1995.
To help police tackle the problem, education ministry officials on secondment to the NPA will help investigate juvenile crimes. Together they are expected to draft a new get-tough policy soon.
"We have tended to emphasise a 'soft' approach to crimes by minors in the past," said Yuko Sekiguchi, director-general of the NPA, at a conference of juvenile division chiefs.
According to the NPA, more than 1,000 minors were arrested or taken into custody last year on suspicion of "oyaji hunting" (the mugging of middle-aged men) and other crimes. It was the first time in 26 years that the number topped 1,000, even though the juvenile population has dropped.
In a country which prides itself on its safe streets, "oyaji hunting" has scandalised the public.
A materialistic, status-obsessed society has produced relatively well-off youngsters seeking more cash to buy designer goods. Girls often find they can only afford such items through prostitution.
And boys have discovered that mugging and sometimes beating up a middle-aged office worker can be lucrative and virtually risk-free. Police say that the youngsters are using the stolen cash to buy drugs.
The NPA offers talks about drugs to schools. However, some have rejected the programme, claiming that they will arouse curiosity about illicit substances. Most Japanese teenagers are ignorant of drugs generally and drug abuse is extremely rare.
Meanwhile, the government is still assessing the repercussions of the increased crime rate and the murder of Jun Hase on Japanese education.
An inter-party governmental committee which met after the arrest of the teenage suspect emphasised the importance of kokoro no kyoiku classes (education of the heart).
The policy, aimed at fostering generosity and moral sensibilities, was given a high priority by the education ministry when it amended the curriculum in 1989.
At least one class on moral education was to be given once a week in all middle and high schools. As the teaching of religion at schools has been banned under the post-war constitution, many educators say the lack of any sort of liberal studies hampers the development of healthy individuals.
However, kokoro no kyoiku is seen as a "soft" subject and not all schools offer it.
Education minister Takashi Kosugi said: "We would like to have all schools provide moral education because apparently the schools in some regions aren't doing this regularly . . . moral education classes must be given at least once a week."