|Japanese parents embrace ultra-secure children's park
EBINA, Japan - Fantasy Kids Resort has all the basic amenities of a park for young children, with a few extras: uniformed monitors, security cameras and antibacterial sand. Visitors spray their stroller wheels with antiseptic soap.
The new indoor park near Tokyo - one of at least a dozen like it in Japan - might seem an overly protective environment for children in one of the world's safest societies.
But for many Japanese parents, such parks are a logical response to a string of dramatic crimes against children that has fixated the nation.
Fantasy Kids Resort marries those concerns with the Japanese penchant for cleanliness and a free-spending reverence for children that has deepened as birthrates drop and single-child homes proliferate.
"Here I feel safe enough to let my kid out of my sight," Yukiko Matsushita said, visiting with her 4-year-old daughter. "It's too late when something has already happened."
For many in Japan, it's already too late.
Kidnappings of children are up 25 percent since 2001, and a spate of lurid killings - one girl's body was stuffed in a box, another girl was stabbed a dozen times in the chest - has horrified the nation.
Despite the chilling headlines, crime against children has declined 20 percent since 2001, according to the National Police Agency. Murders shot up 17 percent from 2001 to 2004, then dropped sharply in 2005, when 151 Japanese younger than 20 were victims.
It's difficult to compare Japan's murder rate among the young with rates in other countries, because statistics are kept differently and populations vary greatly. Last year, 1,570 U.S. victims were 17 or younger. In Britain, 58 younger than 16 were killed in 2004-05.
Elaborate, high-security parks in Japan are part of a trend of keeping a closer eye on children. Guards have been posted along routes to school, and some parents are even fitting their children's backpacks with GPS devices and safety buzzers.
Indeed, the parks illustrate just how far Japanese parents will go to keep their children out of harm's way.
Parents taking children to Fantasy Kids Resort must fill out application forms and present IDs for annual membership. About 20 uniformed staff members watch over the children, and 16 security cameras hang from the ceilings.
Visitors also must check their shoes in a locker - for security as well as hygienic reasons.
"It prevents crime because you can't run away barefoot," said Satoru Hagiwara, president of Fantasyresort Co., operator of the park.
The staff is fastidious about cleanliness. Not only is the sand antibacterial, but workers sift it every day to weed out any objects - even though it is free of dog or cat waste.
Everything is aimed at safety. Even the play sets are inflatable to avoid any injury.
The rigorous approach appears to be paying off: About 250,000 people visited the park from its opening in November through May. Parents and kids pay 420 yen, or about $3.60, each for the first hour and 210 yen ($1.80) for every additional half hour.
Some experts, however, say the safety mania has gone too far.
Koichiro Fujita, a professor of tropical medicine at Tokyo Medical and Dental University with a specialty in studying parasites, said antibacterial sand is unnecessary and could even be harmful by killing off bacteria that protect the skin.
"Children should be exposed to nature, breathe in fresh air, and have contact with animals," he said. "Playing inside weakens your immune system."
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