In Japan, smartphones help hide signs of bad behaviour

Despite increased efforts by the Metropolitan Police Department to take juveniles found engaged in undesirable behaviour into protective custody, police and juvenile guidance officers are struggling to detect early signs of trouble because of social shifts stemming from the spread of smartphones.

A month has nearly passed since three teenagers were arrested for allegedly murdering Ryota Uemura, a 13-year-old middle school student from Kawasaki.

In early March in front of a station in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, three juvenile guidance officers in their 20s to 40s entered a gaming arcade as the clock struck 6 p.m., when youths under 16 are banned from gaming arcades.

They only found two middle school students at the arcade. Once a typical location for juvenile guidance operations, young boys no longer spend as much time at arcades - officers often stumble upon businessmen stopping by on their way home instead.

An officer told a middle school student completely absorbed in a game that he had to leave. The student apologised and left after explaining that he was taking a break following the end of his entrance exams.

If young boys no longer frequent gaming arcades, then where are they? Probably playing games on their smartphones - after all, groups of friends can often be seen glued to their screens. As smartphones continue to rise in sales, so too are cases of smartphone-related bullying.

There have even been cases where simple misunderstandings over social networking services (SNS) led to bullying, including a case where "Kawaikune," an informal form of "Kawaii ne" which means something is cute, was taken to mean the opposite, leading to social exclusion.

A frustrated high-ranking MPD officer confided: "SNS are private spaces within groups of friends. It's just not possible to notice any signs of trouble unless someone contacts us."

Breaking down walls

Some boys in their first year of middle school were extremely noisy in a residential neighborhood park. A juvenile guidance officer came by and asked if there was any bullying going on as the boys were checked for bruises and cuts, but they said, "We were only playing." The officer asked because violence can happen in groups, even if they seem friendly on the surface. The boys seemed to check out, so the officer told them to be careful on their way home.

At another park, a 15-year-old girl was smoking in her school uniform. She claimed a stranger gave her the cigarette as she reluctantly wrote down her contact information, and then asked the female officer to give back her cigarette.

Even then, there were times when the girl would crack a smile as the female officer continued to calmly speak to her. The officer said persistence can make youths open up to a surprising extent.

Don't turn a blind eye

Eight youths between ages 13 and 16 were given guidance this day. Many of their parents are clueless as to who their friends are. "When kids reach middle school, they start developing a side to themselves they don't show their parents," an officer said.

But officers who interact with these youths daily notice even the slightest of worrying signs. When they do, they always ask, because they believe "someone has to warn them, or they'll think adults knowingly turn a blind eye."

Takamasa Uchida, a managing officer for the MPD's Youth Development Division, said: "It isn't the children who changed, it's their environment. What's important is that adults around them pay attention to them and intervene when necessary. We'll keep striving to prevent juvenile misdemeanours."