Akiko Fukami's anxiety level shot off the charts two years ago when a 7-year-old girl at an elementary school in a neighboring prefecture vanished and was later found stabbed to death in a forest in Tochigi Prefecture, about 99 miles north of Tokyo.
Ever since, she has insisted her kids walk with a group of other children to and from school, and carry a security buzzer alarm the school supplied even before the dreadful incident in 2005. "It is scary because the murderer hasn't been arrested," says Fukami, adding that she feels there have been so many murder cases involving children in the last few years in Japan that "I can't even remember all of them."
The need to supply kids with security gadgets and mobile handsets with global positioning systems is a sad reality of contemporary Japan, though the country remains one of the safest in the world. Unlike their counterparts in the U.S. and Europe, Japanese kids often walk or commute to school on public transportation systems at a very tender age. That makes them vulnerable to predators—and makes their parents eager to keep tabs by whatever means possible.
So perhaps it isn't surprising that a sizable market has emerged for security firms and major Japanese handset makers such as NTT DoCoMo, KDDI, and Softbank. Japan's birthrate may be falling, but not the market for personal security gadgets and services aimed at children.
This market has more than tripled since the start of the decade and sales last year hit $212 million, according to figures compiled by Tokyo-based Yano Research Institute. "This trend suggests a changing consciousness in Japanese society about safety and security," the research group concluded in a recent report.
Though no system is foolproof, companies have come up with creative approaches for parents to track their children's whereabouts—and sound the alarm if they encounter any serious trouble. For instance, Japanese school-bag maker Kyowa sells one model equipped with a GPS terminal that costs about $330. The company has sold 10,000 of the GPS-enabled bags in the last two years, and the product now represents about 5 percent of its total annual sales.
For a $60 start-up fee, plus about $7 per month, parents can then contract out for a service called Coco-Secom, developed by leading Japanese security firm Secom, that will track the school bag using a network of GPS satellites and cellular-telephone base stations that will pinpoint a child's exact location.
If the little one is running late, a parent can either call the Coco-Secom operation center or send an e-mail to trace the child. Within 30 to 40 seconds, a subscriber will get a map marking the location of the child. For an additional cost of $82 per request, security guards can be dispatched to the location to retrieve the child. So far, the Coco-Secom service has attracted 135,000 subscribers.
Wireless handset companies are also trying to develop products that appeal to security-anxious parents with a lineup of mobile phones—keitai in Japanese—aimed at kids.
Last month, KDDI's "au" unit released its Junior Keitai and Sweets Cute phones. The company has sold a mobile phone for children under the name of Junior Keitai since January 2006, but this third model is equipped with a movement tracking system.
When a child hits a crime-prevention buzzer attached to the phone or the mobile phone is turned off by somebody, the handset's camera will turn on, take photos, and store the images for later use, and GPS will track the location of the phone and relay that data to a parent's mobile phone or PC. At the end of this month, Softbank will launch its own youth-oriented handsets, called Kodomobile, that have an alarm function to transmit the child's location to parents.
NTT DoCoMo has sold its Kids Keitai since March 2006. When a warning buzzer is triggered, a recorded emergency phone message will be automatically directed to parents. The parents are then patched into their child's mobile phone to talk—or if they can't get through, they can immediately notify police.
One challenge is coming up with cool phone designs that motivate the kids to use them regularly and keep them within easy reach, rather than buried deep down in a school bag or left at home. DoCoMo recently held a contest that drew 13,000 participants to suggest appealing new colors for its Kids Keitai lineup, and introduced cherry- and lime-hued ones as a result.
GPS tracking systems are practically a standard feature on these phones. However, Secom also provides additional security services. "Cell phones equipped with GPS merely provide alarm and location functions," says Minoru Yasuda, head of public relations at Secom. "With our Coco-Secom service, as we have 2,100 emergency takeoff bases around the country, we can dispatch security guards almost everywhere around the clock," says Yasuda.
Secom also developed a tracking service in December that connects to integrated circuit tags using radio frequency identification technology as well as GPS. One private elementary school in Tokyo recently instituted a program in which kids were given handheld devices that work with scanners at the entrance of the school. That way, there was a record of when kids checked in and out of the school's property. That data was then transmitted to the school's internal computer network and e-mailed to the parents.
Of course, nobody is kidding themselves that any of these products or services can truly prevent something awful from happening. "There is no perfect device," realizes homemaker Fukami. Yet in an uncertain world, such gadgetry can provide parents with a modicum of comfort.
Hiroko Tashiro is an editorial assistant in BW's Tokyo bureau.