Thousands of Japanese join search for crocodile DATELINE: TOKYO


TOKYO -- Rain doesn't deter Mari, 3, and Erika, 6, from their hunt on a Monday afternoon in a small Tokyo park. They are looking for crocodile. And they are not alone.

Five boys ages 11 and 12, flushed from a 40-minute bike ride begun immediately after school, arrive with binoculars as the two Ayokolbi sisters wobble away.

On a nice day, says Tomotaka Ikebe, a security guard, up to 10,000 others have joined in the search, and twice Mr. Ikebe has performed rescues -- but only because the same intoxicated man dove into the football-field-sized pond where the crocodile- or alligator-like reptile (no one is sure which) is said to live.

A minor obstacle to viewers is that there have been no pictures proving the claims, and the chances of a crocodile being in the vicinity are slim. Godzilla movies notwithstanding, big reptiles are not indigenous to Japan and, certainly, not likely residents of Tokyo -- a city with more concrete and less wilderness than perhaps any other major metropolis in the world.

Tokyo's Shokujii Park, the scene of the search, is a famous dumping ground where people release unwanted pets. Normally, these are limited to dogs and cats, as well as the occasional duck or chicken. But in early August the local ward government announced that during the past year three people had reported seeing a 2-foot to 3-foot long crocodile, and immediately the word spread that someone, no doubt a gaijin, a foreigner, had released a pet crocodile before departing for other shores.

Experts were consulted. Yosuke Yamamoto, caretaker of reptiles Tokyo's Ueno Zoo, says he has been deluged with calls and it didn't even take a question this time for him to give a harsh picture of reptile reality:

It was too cold in Tokyo during the past winter for a crocodile to have survived outside; even if it has survived, it would be a small one -- too small to eat anyone -- and therefore not deserving of such attention; and finally, Mr. Yamamoto emphasized, there isn't an escaped crocodile living in Tokyo.

But what do experts really know anyway? To live in Japan is to witness a government constantly forced into revealing more and more about what was deliberately obscured in the past.

The official announcement of reported (if unconfirmed) sightings was enough to prod the famous Japanese bureaucracy into action.

Thousands of yards of steel wire were wrapped around a quaint wooden fence surrounding a pond where the alleged sightings occurred. Rotting horse meat suspended from a half-dozen wooden rafts were launched into the pond, to be checked every three or four days for bite marks.

On the lush banks of the pond, official signs were posted reading "Danger-Crocodile" and a phone number was given so suspicious movements could be reported.

Mr. Ikebe, who typically spends his day guarding construction sites, was handed binoculars, a camera and a two-way radio, and assigned a 7-day-a-week, 13-hour-a-day duty to guard the ++ perimeter, he said.

It's not a bad job, he says, since he often gets to talk to children. And, despite almost a month with nothing to report, he still believes there is a 60 percent chance that there may indeed be a crocodile, though (as one dire rumor suggests) it might be dead.

Others are a bit more skeptical. Hiroshi Oda, 67, lives in the neighborhood and, even though he cruises by the pond daily just to check, he says there is "100 percent no chance" of the beast being around. "It's a plot by the local tea house" to increase business, he says.

Not surprisingly, Setsuko Krihara, proprietress of one of the local tea houses, vigorously denies the innuendo, but she notes that other tea houses with a finer sense of how to do business have made a killing selling children's candies encased in reptile-like cases. The number of customers stopping by her own well-located restaurant has increased. And yes, possibly, she might consider putting a picture of a crocodile on the wall.

Such efforts on behalf of a non-existent creature make Mr. Oda sneer. An unnecessary hysteria has forced the city to waste millions of yen on a futile effort to protect against nothing, he says.

Anyway, he adds, as he pushes off for home before returning to the park later, even if there is a crocodile, it won't come out in the daytime when all the crowds are around.

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