Are They Too Young to Ride the Trains Alone?

August 15, 2005   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA

Like most Japanese primary- school students, my son, 6, is expected to get to school on his own. Donned in his uniform, white, rolled-brim hat and navy blue shorts, and carrying a heavy black leather satchel on his back, he rides two trains and a bus for the 90-minute journey across central Tokyo every morning.

The practice of sending children off by themselves began when most children attended neighborhood schools and crime was not an issue. Educators believe unattended commuting fosters healthy independence. It’s true that in the four months since Yataro started the first grade, he’s memorized his route, learned to use a pay phone to report his location to me and discovered the thrill of traveling with friends. But while he has grown, so has my list of concerns.

At first, my biggest worry was whether Yataro could remember the way. I had never allowed him to leave our front door by himself before. Now he would have to walk along several streets to get to our train station, board a crowded train and transfer at Shinjuku (the world’s busiest station, with nearly 3.5 million commuters passing through each day), catch another train and then a bus.

Unfortunately, knowing one route is not enough since trains can be delayed or canceled. Pertinent instructions are listed on screens in trains, but 6-year-olds can’t digest such information. One morning, a signal malfunction slowed his line to school. I was seeing Yataro off at Shinjuku (as I do sometimes to ease my anxiety) and was able to put him on another train. Several of his classmates were late to school.

I soon encountered a scene that ratcheted up my anxiety level exponentially. A train approaching the platform across from us at Shinjuku one morning blasted its horn and stopped midway into the station. “Get away from me!” shouted a young woman just a few meters ahead on the platform. She was trying to break free from two men grabbing her to stop her from jumping onto the tracks. I quickly moved in front of Yataro to block his view. The train crawled the rest of the way and we were spared the scene of a bloody suicide. I knew such tobikomi (“diving in”) suicides took place, but didn’t realize how frequent they were. There were 807 cases in 2003, according to government statistics, more than two a day. Now I had to add “might see a suicide” to my list of worries.

One day Yataro breathlessly reported that he had discovered a 100 Yen coin (nine cents) left in a pay phone at Shinjuku. I was more interested in what he said happened next. When he approached a station official to hand it over, “a man in a pale blue shirt shouted some very bad words at me, so I ran to platform 4.” (Never mind that he is not supposed to wait at platform 4.) I surmised that my son had witnessed an exchange between the official and a distraught person “in a pale blue shirt,” whom I was relieved did not strike my son.

It’s distressing that I have to teach Yataro not to trust grown-ups. Japan’s crime rate is still low among developed countries, but last fall, a 7-year-old girl was abducted on her walk home from school and later found dead in a roadside ditch in Nara prefecture, nearly 300 miles southwest of Tokyo.

Is it just a matter of time before kidnappers target young children on public transportation? More than half of all elementary schools now distribute alarm buzzers to their students, who hang the Oreo-size contraptions around their necks or on their satchels. Yataro’s school bans cell-phone usage but allows the kids to carry phones with Global Positioning Systems so that parents can track their location.

I have had to explain to Yataro that I cannot write his name on the outside of his satchel because “someone bad” might call it to lure him away. But no security measure can fully protect Yataro from a suicide bomber or an earthquake like the one that jolted Tokyo a few weeks ago, stalling major train lines for hours. Even if he survived such catastrophes, he would surely be engulfed by the ensuing panic.

Oblivious to all my concerns, Yataro eagerly boards the trains each day looking for other schoolmates. The boys use the time to practice writing characters on foggy windows, play hand games and exchange riddles.

Several weeks ago, as I headed home from Shinjuku after seeing Yataro off, my line passed through a station where half an hour earlier a man had thrown himself into an oncoming train. The corpse was wrapped in a sheet on a stretcher on the platform. I scanned the station to see if any white-rolled brim hats were among the crowd. They were not.

But I no longer want to worry twice a day, every day, about Yataro’s commute. Later this year, I will move near his school.