Gadgets That Shout For Help

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's the sort of thing a junior James Bond - or his sister - would adore.

It looks like a tiny pink plastic change purse emblazoned with one of Japan's most-beloved cartoon characters, a cat named "Hello Kitty." But yank on the dark pink daisy hanging from the bottom of the purse and you'll unleash an alarm that could peel paint.

Japan's consumer spending might be grinding to a halt, but personal-security devices like this little gadget have been flying off the shelves in recent months.

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Highly publicized crimes against women and children and a rising crime rate have created a demand for self-defense gizmos where a market barely existed a year ago.

While products like mace and stun guns might dominate the American personal-security market, Japan's new products combine whimsy and technical wizardry so cleverly that you're almost tempted to dismiss them - until someone yanks on the daisy, that is.

"In the past, Japan was considered a very safe country. Every Japanese believed that without doubt," says Masahiro Shishikura, manager of the Tokyo-based Japan Crime Prevention Association, an affiliate of the National Police Agency. "But that isn't so anymore."

Japan's crime rate remains extremely low in international terms, and foreigners here like to tell stories of cash-stuffed wallets lost and returned intact. But crime has risen some 11 percent over the past decade and violent crime in particular has climbed. The crime rate - crimes committed for every 100,000 people - was 1,440 in 1996, up from 1,300 in 1986. That's still a far cry from the rate in the United States, which was 5,278 per 100,000 in 1995, according to Japan's Justice Ministry.

A 1995 poison-gas attack on Tokyo's subways jolted the country out of its complacency. And last summer's killing of a 13-year-old boy in Kobe severely altered Japan's self-image as a secure place. "The demand for personal alarms skyrocketed from nowhere," Mr. Shishikura recalls. "There was such a panic; stock ran out for six months."

At Kiddy Land, a six-story Tokyo toy emporium, all 100 Hello Kitty change-purse alarms sold out in weeks as mothers outfitted their children for the new school year that began this month. "[My daughter] is going to high school now, and it's a long commute," says one housewife, who picked out a slim $85 Hello Kitty wristwatch alarm. "This is a dangerous society now. I hope this keeps her from danger."

For toy companies, these perceived new dangers are a bonanza. Bandai, makers of Tamagotchi virtual pets, estimates that as of March it has sold some 200,000 personal alarms this year.

Because safety concerns are such a new development, there are no estimates yet on personal-security spending. But the Japan Security Systems Association assesses the market before this boom at just over $2 million a year. Japan's general security industry, which encompasses burglar alarms, safes, and security guards, takes in an estimated $2.3 billion annually.

Personal alarms used to cost around $10. But now the average price hovers between $80 and $100, and the number of choices has exploded. In the past year, a menagerie of personal alarms has hit the market - disguised as plush Teddy bears, knobby alligator key chains, Tamagotchis, and wristwatches adorned with bunny faces.

Japan's version of Garfield the cat, a fat tabby named Doraemon, now dangles from a key chain and, when tugged properly, howls at 90 decibels.

Many of these cartoon-character devices are being marketed to adults as well, particularly young women. But a range of less fanciful products have also hit the market. On the high-tech end, there are products such as "human sensors," which can be set up around the house. If the sensor detects anyone approaching, it triggers a recording of a rough male voice saying, "Who's there? What do you want?" Firms whose products at first glance aren't safety-oriented are now using security concerns to market their goods. Cell phone and beeper companies are targeting mothers who want to be able to contact their children at all times. Some hand-held video games now come equipped with an alarm.

The media have simultaneously fed and reflected the public concern about safety. One prime-time TV show called "Danger Busters" features private detectives and other "professional troubleshooters," who explain their methods for dealing with safety threats. Men's magazines are running spreads on self-defense products such as transportable door locks for business trips, self-defense batons, and fountain pens that hold mace, not ink. They also feature step-by-step photo spreads on how to parry a physical attack.

Women's magazines run similar features, but with more emphasis on practical safety measures than on cool equipment. One fashion magazine recently recommended that single women buy men's underwear to hang on their laundry line or leave a pair of their father's old shoes outside their door.

Between the media coverage, the snappy product marketing, and genuine worries about security, this trend is likely to be self-sustaining for some time, regardless of future crime trends.

Tomoko Taniguchi, a young woman who works at a Tokyo financial firm, now owns two personal-security alarms.

"It's much better to invest money on safety than be hurt mentally or physically," she says, explaining her personal security philosophy. "I'm not stingy on safety at all."

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