Japanese children have always led secure lives, protected by family, schools and the communities in which they lived.

Neighbours traditionally looked out for them. A door was always open for a child in distress. They had little to fear.
  
But today, they have to walk to school accompanied by adults, parents do not allow them to play outside alone and children are told to never talk to strangers.

In June, a mother in Tokyo's Setagaya ward was arrested after her husband came home from work to find their 11-year-old son had been strangled with a belt. The mother admitted killing the boy, but has not yet given a reason.

The Setagaya murder followed quickly on the heels of another. On May 17, Goken Yoneyama, 7, was strangled and his body dumped on the riverside in Tokyo's Akita prefecture near the town of Fujisato by a 33-year-old neighbour, Suzuka Hatakeyama,.

Hatakeyama confessed to killing Goken but said she acted on impulse because she was still devastated at the death in April of her own 9-year-old daughter, Ayaka, who went missing after leaving her home for a friend's house.

Her body was found 10km from her home.

Alarming trends

The string of shocking child murders in rapid succession has refocused attention on the alarming tendency of adults seeking out the most vulnerable members of society to vent their frustrations on.  

Police inspect a school in Uji in
after a teacher stabbed a pupil

Jun Saimura, of the Child and Family Research Institute, says: "We're seeing a definite increase in incidents of physical, psychological and sexual abuse of children, as well as simple neglect."

The ultimate extension of that, he adds, is the killing of a child.
  
Saimura says there are two main reasons for this worrying trend: The collapse of the nuclear family and increasing isolation in Japan's urban society.

"No-one is showing parents how they can best raise and care for their children and parents are under pressure financially, at work and in the home," he tells Aljazeera.net.

According to the ministry of health, labour and welfare, cases of child abuse referred to child consultation centres leapt 25% in fiscal 2004, with staff handling 32,979 reports of abuse.

When first introduced in 1990, 1,101 cases were registered.
  
Societal failure

Toshiko Marks, a professor of multicultural understanding at Shumei University, says that abuse and crime targeting children was unheard of and considered an aberration a mere 10 years ago.

But she believes Japanese society has undergone significant, if not adverse, changes.
 

Parents are under financial stress
and have less time for children

"I think the very root of the problem is the failure of society at what was a generation or two ago the village society level and the family," she said.

"In the past, we all used to belong to a family, whether we were rich or poor, and in the evenings we would all sit down and talk over the dinner table.
  
"Now we are an urbanised nation, with often only one child and the father is seldom home," she said. "We don't talk to each other any more. The neighbourhood community is gone and has been replaced by apartment blocks. We don't speak to the people who live around us." 
  
Easy targets

Aya Matsumoto, a psychologist and behavioural scientist, says the rising number of adults targeting children is cause for concern.

"Japan is a reasonably safe country and youngsters have not been taught to question or doubt a stranger's intentions," she said.

Some blame technology for
breaking down human contact

"Kids here are told to respect their elders and are too trusting of adults. But it is a myth that Japan is a safe place today. They pick on children because they are easy targets."

But Saimura believes technological changes in Japanese society may also be at fault.

He points to the amount of time spent playing increasingly violent computer games, surfing the internet and other interactive media at the cost of decreased human interaction.

"We're becoming too isolated and focused on our own wants rather than thinking of the needs of society at large, and that's going to be increasingly damaging," he says.
     
Steady rise

The number of child murders has been steadily rising in the past year.

In late November, Jose Torres Yake, a Peruvian immigrant, was arrested in connection with the murder in Hiroshima of 7-year-old Airi Kinoshita.

One week later, Yuki Yoshida, also 7, was found dead in a forest in the central Japan prefecture of Tochigi.

The number of child murders in
Japan has been steadily rising

Sayano Horimoto, 12, was knifed to death in December in the town of Uji, Kyoto prefecture, by her teacher, Yu Hagino, a 23-year-old student at the highly regarded Doshisha University.
  
In February, Mie Taniguchi, a 34-year-old mother, murdered two of her daughter's 5-year-old friends because she was under stress to conform to the wishes of a group of mothers at the kindergarten the children all attended.

According to police in Nagahama, Shiga prefecture, Wakana Taketomo was stabbed 19 times with a 20-cm long sashimi knife, and Jin Sano 13 times.
  
Paralysis

For the time being, Japanese society seems to be paralysed about what it can or should do to stop the abuse and killing of its younger members.

Welfare officials are not very proactive and neighbours often turn a blind eye when they suspect a child might be at risk, part of the tradition of Japanese society's non-intrusiveness.

While the authorities in Japan have traditionally been reluctant to get involved in "domestic" situations, the Hatakeyama story may create momentum to change the way they deal with family violence.

But Marks is pessimistic.

"The family unit is breaking down and I fear it will be impossible to rebuild that. The local community in modern, urban Japan no longer is the support group that it used to be and people will always have economic problems," she says.
  
"And I think it will be children who bear the brunt of the pain in years to come."