007 Parenting Japanese Parents Hire Spies to Find out What's Bugging Their Kids

Article excerpt

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. …