It was night. It was Roppongi, Tokyo’s gaudy, full-bore-until-dawn bar district. Specifically, it was a dark back alley in Roppongi. And she was alone.

The men weren’t. There were seven of them, wearing black pants, combat boots, T-shirts, military-style berets. All coming down the alley toward her. They drew near. Then one spoke.

“Please be careful,” he said as the group marched past her, on into the Tokyo night.

The woman just had encountered members of Guardian Angels Japan, about 500 volunteers who patrol communities in 25 neighborhoods and cities such as Shibuya, Sapporo, Sendai, Hiroshima and Fukuoka.

“We greet people, keep eyes out so there are no fights,” try to help those who appear to need it, said Roppongi patrol leader Carlos Enobi, a Peruvian factory worker from Yokohama.

And they try to leave things a bit cleaner than they found them — like on that recent night in Roppongi. Suddenly, the seven stopped at a phone booth.

They knew the drill. Six moved smoothly into position: three pairs, standing back-to-back, keeping sharp eyes on their surroundings. The seventh quickly entered the booth and ripped off a dozen fliers stuck on the telephone, all with a picture of a naked woman and a phone number. Within seconds, they were marching again.

The members, all volunteers, say they commute more than an hour each week to take part in the entertainment district patrols.

The group extends to Japan an organization already familiar to many servicemembers patronizing the Roppongi bars and clubs. The Guardian Angels was started by 13 young men in New York City who began patrolling subways in 1979.

The group grew. And in the 1990s, one of its volunteers, of both Boston and New York, was Keiji Oda.

He returned to Japan in 1995 — the same year a cult group loosed sarin gas in a busy Tokyo subway station. Oda was disturbed, he said, at what he perceived as a lack of interest among Japanese about the attacks. “I felt that the peace and order was deteriorating” in Japan, he said. So he turned to what he knew: the Guardian Angels.

“I thought that there was a need to boost crisis awareness before it was too late,” he said.

The immediate response was somewhat less than overwhelming. In its early days, Guardian Angels Japan had difficulties finding volunteers and sponsors and gaining acceptance, Oda said. In those days, he recalled, some tried to pick fights with the patrols. Others thwarted volunteers picking up litter by littering right behind them.

But Oda and the small band of volunteers persisted — and, over time, both membership and public acceptance grew. Today, members said, their “uniforms” and berets still draw stares, but members say residents often greet them, and sometimes help them pick up litter.

Perhaps aiding the group’s growing acceptance is Japan’s crime rate. Although declining slightly in recent years, it still is higher than when Oda began Guardian Angels Japan: By 2003, Japanese police were logging 1.6 times the crimes logged in 1995, according to National Police Agency statistics.

Against such statistics, fighting crime by picking up litter might seem akin to hunting rogue elephants with BB guns. But a similar approach is widely credited with reversing street crime in New York City, including in the now-glittering, once-infamous Times Square.

In New York, they call it “zero tolerance:” Tolerate even a minor infraction and it opens the door to more serious crime.

The Guardian Angels Japan version is the “broken window theory,” Oda said: Neighborhoods that neglect minor signs of decay and disorder — those phone-booth solicitation stickers — are inviting more serious crimes.

Against such apathy Oda recruits volunteers age 16 to 75. Most, he says, are men in their teens or 20s. Requirements are few: They need to be older than 16 and have a spirit of volunteerism — a desire to pitch in.

“We need them,” says Bill Hersey, the director of Lexington Queen, a Roppongi club. They keep Roppongi “as good as it is.”

Although the group doesn’t issue statistics, Oda says anecdotal evidence indicates the Guardian Angels are helping.

Since they began patrolling, he said, they’ve seen fewer bag-snatchers and emergency calls in some communities. In a small town in western Japan, parents and teachers patrolled near kindergartens and elementary schools after reports aired of suspicious individuals lingering nearby. After a while, Oda said, the individuals went away.

The incident typified the Guardian Angels Japan approach, he said: “We try to prevent crimes through communication and not with force.”

Accordingly, they also hold safety seminars and Internet safety classes, create neighborhood maps identifying dangerous areas, erase graffiti and provide security at various events.

The 2004 annual white paper, a Japanese government report published by the cabinet office, said, “the existence of Guardian Angels Japan and their activities are helping in crime prevention and easing concerns of the residents.” Also, it stated, the Guardian Angels’ existence has led residents to realize “that something can change if one takes action.”

And indications are that for Japanese, the Guardian Angels might be an idea whose time has come. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government recently encouraged communities and volunteers to patrol their neighborhoods as an alternative to recruiting thousands of new police officers.

“That’s not feasible financially,” said vice governor Yutaka Takehana. “You have to think of other means to strengthen deterrence against crime, so hence this system of deterrence is being established in Tokyo.”

“People used to ask me why I’m doing such a stupid thing,” said Enobi, the Roppongi patrol leader who joined the Guardian Angels after motorcycle gang members beat him unconscious with a baseball bat.

“I joined to fight,” he said — but from working with the group, he learned that “all you need to do is to communicate and negotiate.”

author picture
Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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