A schoolboy's confession to murder has kindled fears of a youth crime wave in Japan, but experts say the epidemic is mostly an illusion spun by media and politicians.
Public worries that the nation's youth are out of control were heightened by the recent killing of a four-year-old infant by a 12-year-old boy in the southern city of Nagasaki, the latest in a list of high-profile juvenile crimes.
The Nagasaki case came only days after the beating to death of a 13-year-old by fellow teens on the southern island of Okinawa, and prompted a flood of soul-searching and lamentations.
"The number of minors arrested and taken into custody has risen for a second consecutive year. This clearly points to an increase in the number of boys and girls who do not know the importance of life and have no compassion for others," said a recent editorial in the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.
In a sign of concern, the government announced yesterday it would set up a panel of bureaucrats to devise ways of fighting juvenile crime.
Experts, however, say the media are distorting the real picture by zeroing in on data that seems to back up their assertions that today's juveniles are committing more violent crimes than their predecessors did.
"Everyone says that youth crime is becoming more vicious, or that the incidence of crime is increasing rapidly," said lawyer Manabu Sunose. "But if the mass media were to look at the data properly, they would realize this is not the case."
Police figures show those aged 14 to 19 arrested for murder in the first five months of this year rose to 52 from 18 in the same period last year.
But such short-term comparisons are misleading, Sunose said.
In fact, Japan's annual rate of juvenile arrests for murder is far lower than in the 1960s and has been stable in a range of roughly 80 to 120 for three decades. That is about one-tenth that in the US, where the population is twice as big.
More intense media coverage, however, gives the impression of Japanese youth on a rampage.
"The number of youth crimes being shown in the media has increased drastically in the past 20 or 30 years. So it just feels as if the rate has increased," said Sayoko Ishii, a lawyer and co-author of a book on youth crime and the law.
Conservative politicians have seized on the purported crime wave among minors to bolster their case for reform of an education system they say needs a hefty dose of traditional mores to counter eroding discipline and declining academic scores.
"Youth crime has also become a political football in the debate over how children should be educated and so on," Ishii said. "It suits some people to say that the young are in a terrible mess."
The bizarre nature of many juvenile crimes taken up by the media, such as the 1997 beheading of a child by a teenager, along with parents' fears that their own children might be capable of such crimes, is also fuelling public anxiety.
Sunose said: "I think the fact that they don't really understand the motives ... adds to people's unease."