Safety Zone?

Back to Contents of Issue: May 2002

Do Japan's school really need high tech surveillance?

by By Mayumi Saito

ON JUNE 8 LAST YEAR, a knife-wielding man stormed into Ikeda Elementary School in Osaka and stabbed to death eight children, wounding 15 others, including two teachers. The tragedy sent a shock wave through a nation struggling to come to terms with growing lawlessness and raised the question of whether or not Japan's schools were still the safe havens they should be.

Debates raged nationwide on how to increase school security, while maintaining the renowned 'open-door' policy generations of Japanese know and love. Local municipalities started taking individual steps to combat intruders, some providing security patrols and distributing whistles and portable alarms to children. In July Atsuko Toyama, the education minister, announced that the government would subsidize those local administrations applying new security measures to their public schools and would help private schools financially too. Projects such as building an emergency-call network for schools and setting up classroom video-surveillance systems became hot topics, bringing the unthinkable into the real world.

Companies that had specialized in home and office security started to target schools as potential customers. Kazuo Sasaki, president of security-system maker SunShine, says, "One reason the number of victims in Ikeda was so high was that the first eyewitness teacher had no way to alert others. She had to run to the teachers' room for help, leaving the kids behind." SunShine offers an emergency alarm system called School Guard, which networks each classroom with the teachers' room. When a stranger breaks into a classroom, the teacher presses a button on a remote control to set a siren off in the teachers' room and display which classroom is at risk. The School Guard system, distributed by NTT-ME, costs JPY230,000 and has sold 250 units to schools, kindergartens and nurseries around Tokyo since last July.

In September, the Tokyo metropolitan government decided to allocate JPY1.5 billion to help set up the emergency-call system School 110 Hot Line with the police department. Up to JPY262,500 per school was allocated to Tokyo's 5,716 nurseries, kindergartens, elementary and junior high schools by the end of fiscal 2001, including both public and private schools. The School 110 Hot Line system works similarly to the police-reporting network already employed at banks: When an incident occurs, a teacher presses the emergency button in the teachers' room to transmit the alert through specialized equipment to the Tokyo metropolitan police department, which then reports the emergency to the school's nearest police station. The theory is that the local force immediately dispatches officers to the school, but use of the system is limited to serious incidents to avoid unnecessary police involvement.

Tokyo's education bureau has chosen four systems to qualify for the subsidy: NEC Infrontia's Corsos CSD110 (JPY220,000), The Japan Telecommunications Welfare Association's emergency-call system SPE-110 (JPY250,000), Iwatsu Isec's Patophone PT-2060RK (JPY220,000) and SunShine's School Guard 110 (JPY150,000) developed from the original School Guard model. "We have created business opportunities making the market easy for different companies to enter," says the education bureau's elementary and secondary school section chief Kenichi Goto.

Yet even manufacturers are skeptical about the effectiveness of these systems. SunShine's Sasaki has even written to Tokyo's education bureau explaining the obvious fact that alerting the police can be done with a regular phone in the teachers' room. "No one breaks into the teachers' room. The critical link is that between the classroom and the teachers' room," he chides, calling the JPY25,000-School 110 Hot Line maintenance fee levied on each school wasteful. NTT-ME's sales manager Tsunenori Terakado agrees, adding that the School Guard 110 model has sold fewer than 100 units so far.

Tokyo education bureau's Goto protests that the School 110 Hot Line system is still basic and subject to change, based upon needs. "We had to set it up by the end of the fiscal year. We need to examine a number of concrete cases to determine at what level this system is to be used. For the moment we may as well promote the system as a crime prevention measure."

Hitachi Denshi Technosystems and NTT-ME have also been offering Pointable Intelligent, a camera-based surveillance system, since last year. Originally developed to spot illegal parking or abandoned trash, it's now being marketed for catching intruders in schools. Up to four video cameras can be placed at different spots, and the system can be set to detect a passing object of adult size before triggering an alarm or recording a static image -- constant human attention is unnecessary.

The JPY780,000 system has been installed in 20 kindergartens in Chiba prefecture, according to NTT-ME's Terakado. "There is a wide difference in the levels of interests in security and crisis management among municipalities. While some kindergartens are eager to employ a new security system, many school heads hesitate to spend money without the public subsidy," he says. Chiba allocated JPY108 million from the fiscal 2001 annual budget for 459 private nurseries, kindergartens, welfare facilities, elementary and junior high schools to set up an emergency-call system similar to Tokyo's and is reportedly inclined to subsidize school security further.

An IT security system which has been in slightly longer use is AlphaOmega Soft's iSeeFamily (JPY98,000). This system broadcasts school images live via a webcam and the Internet. Project manager Sanae Kitao originally developed the system to enhance communications among separate family members. Now, it allows parents to watch their children from a computer terminal at work.

Seeing more of their children can help relations at home, according to Kitao, yet reactions are mixed: "Some conservative teachers feel uncomfortable being watched, while others enjoy performing in front of the camera."

The education boards in Tokyo, Kanagawa and Osaka requested more webcams after the Ikeda massacre, according to Kitao. Nearly 200 nurseries and kindergartens around Tokyo have employed the system since April last year.

J-Kids Lumine Kitasenju Nursery, which opened last August, has been employing AlphaOmega Soft's product and system-development company MMP's ID card reader at the entrance since day one. Noriko Matsumoto, mother of one- and three-year-old toddlers, claims that the facility's security measures played a big part in nursery choice, given the reports of child abuse at nurseries. She works at home and has an ADSL line, so she can watch her children on the Internet. Kei Hirai, mother of a one-year-old at the same nursery, says she watches her child on the Web for fun rather than for surveillance. Education consulting company Caption Center Japan helped open this private nursery; president Sanae Sekiya says many companies are developing webcam-based systems now that the spread of domestic broadband Internet connections makes it practicable. "Private nurseries tend to be closed establishments; incorporating a video-surveillance camera can be a form of open information to the parents," he says.

It's not all so voyeuristic: Along with the security measures, J-Kids Lumine Kitasenju Nursery offers plenty of interaction with parents on its Web site. Parents can check out the event album, school meal recipes, their monthly school accounts (in the password-protected area) and exchange e-mail with the teachers. Given the success of the project, the Tokyo metropolitan government is likely to certify and subsidize more private nurseries like this to meet the demands of increasingly busy parents. @

Mayumi Saito is a Tokyo-based freelance writer. She wrote A Kurin for Your Thoughts for J@pan Inc in February 2002.

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