Japanese parents hire spies to find out what's bugging their kids.
Emiko Katayama was cleaning the usual junior high school clutter in her son's room when she found his will.
"I almost went crazy," the single mother recalls. "It said, 'I'll never forgive [a classmate]. I'll never forgive my teacher. I want to die. I am useless.' I was so shocked, I couldn't even speak to him that day."
Ms. Katayama was fairly sure classmates were bullying her son, but he wasn't talking. "He was so closed," she says. When she went to his school and the local board of education for help, they denied there was a problem. "They weren't cooperative at all," she says angrily.
So she hired private detectives. For less than $900, operatives from Angle Corp. followed her son, recorded his phone calls, and listened electronically to his conversations.
Within a week they'd identified the troublemakers and confronted them in a dramatic sting.
Japanese magazines and TV programs have documented the practice of spying on children with alarm and amazement. The interest in child-spying services - Angle alone has received almost 3,000 inquiries in the last 12 months - highlights social problems that are of mounting concern in Japan.
Failure of the family
In particular, there is much discussion about the weakened state of family, a legacy of the massive social change that's taken place here since World War II. On a larger scale, many observers see the impulse to spy on your own family as yet another sign that the trust that has long bound Japanese society is disintegrating.
Some issues surrounding the child-spying services have drawn less comment. Few have focused on the core problem of bullying in Japanese schools or the ethics of invading your child's privacy, perhaps because both reflect long-standing aspects of Japanese culture.
Angle President Hirotoshi Kohama says his agency just fell into the business of monitoring children. About nine years ago, Mr. Kohama was visiting a client to discuss her case and noticed that her son seemed uneasy. "I could tell from his eyes something was wrong," he says.
He asked if he could talk to the boy and, in the course of questioning him, learned he was being bullied. The agency ended up taking on the boy's case as well. Word of mouth drew other anxious parents and a new service was born.
It was, in fact, a friend who told Katayama about Angle's services. Her son was having a grueling year. He had stopped going to school for a while - leaving in the morning, then sneaking back home once she'd left for work - and at one point had stolen almost $1,000 from her purse. She later learned his classmates were forcing him to buy them games and food among other things.
Angle gave her a charm - a pendant inscribed with a phrase that's thought to be lucky, that many children wear. This charm contained a tiny listening device.
They also planted a wiretapping device in her son's school bag and in his cellular phone. The work, which lasted a week, cost about $700 - a discount from the usual $860 charge because Katayama is a single mom.
Unlike most children Angle oversees, Katayama's son was told about the electronic monitoring and helped out. Once Kohama had gathered enough evidence, he and his agents set a trap. They sent young Katayama out to meet his classmates, but without the money they had demanded he bring.
After the boys had dragged Katayama to a nearby park, Kohama (the head of Angle) appeared, roaring and angry, claiming to be his uncle. "On behalf of his father, I'll never forgive you if you do this again!" Kohama told the boys.
Kohama plays a personal part in each of these cases, flying wherever the client lives. About 30 percent of Angle's caseload is taken up with bullying cases. In November alone, there were 60 cases. Kohama says other detective agencies don't seem to have picked up on the market yet. One Tokyo agency says that it hasn't been asked to do such work, but would gladly do so if hired.
Kohama's sense of mission stems from his own childhood in Kobe, a western city. When Kohama was in junior high school, his mother, a single parent, moved the family into a more affordable neighborhood that turned out to be highly troubled.
"Classrooms all had two teachers - one in the back in case violence broke out," he remembers. He was bullied so badly that he dropped out of school before the year was over and never went back.
Today, Angle has 17 branches and 300 employees. In the sleek Tokyo head office, Kohama, slim and impeccably dressed, sits at a table decorated with a pot of bright flowers - really a camera and listening device that can record as far as 300 meters away.
Secret recording, filming, and listening are all legal in Japan as long as no crime is committed when planting the recording device. Wiretapping a phone isn't legal, but there's no law against selling wiretaps.
The debate over parents spying on children has been framed mainly as a problem with the Japanese family, not as a privacy issue. This is partly because the concept of children's rights is not well established here and partly because the idea of privacy is largely a foreign import (see accompanying article, right). But a larger factor is that, like Katayama, most parents are too worried about their children to care.
American parents try surveillance
Even in a country like the United States, where children's rights are well recognized, parental anxiety often overrides privacy concerns. Detective agencies across the US say they often do work for parents worried about their kids.
"Suspected drug use is the main reason we are retained to do this," explains Alice Byrne of the Brooklyn-based Alice Byrne Investigations in New York. "At times however, it is a request from an immigrant family who finds their teenage child slipping from traditions and attracted to friends with very different standards."
How much bullying exists in American schools has not been well documented. Surveys of US schoolchildren over the past several years show that 10 to 25 percent of those surveyed reported they had recently been bullied, many to the extent that they began dreading school, according to the Associated Press.
Surveillance isn't the only recourse for American parents concerned about problems such as bullying. Teachers' organizations and libraries provide videos, books, and survival guides. Web sites on bullying number into the hundreds. Parents' groups such as Kids Hope (based in Woodstock, Ga.) and Parents for Safer Schools lobby school boards and local governments.
In Japan, the practice of spying on children to protect them from bullies has drawn harsh criticism.
"It shows how irresponsible Japanese parents can be," says Tokyo psychologist Naoko Misawa. "They think money can solve everything, they don't even try to solve problems themselves. They don't know how."
Ms. Misawa argues that spying is symptomatic of how Japanese child rearing is failing. She's not alone. Rising teenage crime and truancy have raised a great deal of concern about the role of families here.
The demands of post-World War II economic growth have left most families essentially fatherless, as men are required to put in long hours at work, often living in different cities. Mothers put the bulk of their attention into their child's academic achievement, since success as an adult depends largely on results in the competitive school-entrance exams.
The result, observers say, is that children are often isolated, stressed, and adrift. "Fathers have no authority anymore," says Daisaburo Hashizume, a sociologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. "Mothers don't know how to discipline, and teachers are simply managers."
The government has introduced a program to encourage better parenting, but many observers feel that real change will only occur with shifts in Japan's economic and educational structure.
There has probably been even more hand-wringing over the problem of bullying.
Despite a disturbing number of bullying-related suicides here every year, concern has yet to translate into effective countermeasures. Bullying is often seen as an unfortunate fact of life.
In conformist Japan, don't stick out
In a society that stresses conformity, bullies target children who stick out. Their threats reinforce a lesson children get from teachers and the outside world: Don't stick out.
Small for his age, chubby, and from a divorced home, Katayama's son was ripe for bullies.
And as Katayama discovered, many schools refuse to admit it exists. "Japanese schools just want to ignore any problems," she says bitterly. "They all said in chorus, 'There's no such thing as bullying at our school.' And do you know what they said to me at the end? 'It's your fault your son is bullied.' " Today, Katayama says she and her son are happy and credits Kohama and his men, who still phone every now and then to make sure things are OK.
"My son is really positive now," she says. "The other day he said to me, 'Mom, Japanese people are all yes-men, don't you think? I want to be able to say no sometimes.' "