TOKYO -- It's 2 a.m., and four young Guardian Angels trot in tight formation through the deserted streets of a Tokyo neighborhood wearing combat boots, military fatigues and the group's trademark red berets.
Suddenly, the screeching of wheels breaks the silence. Then -- ++ bang! -- something explodes, and everyone dives for cover. Was that a gunshot? A bomb? After a few more sharp bursts accompanied by the titters of teen-agers, the Angels relax: "Firecrackers," mutters one as he returns to his feet.
The Guardian Angels, famous league of civilian crime fighters, have come to one of the most famously crime-free nations in the world -- last year Japan recorded 1,236 homicides, compared with 1,182 in New York City alone. The question is: Now what?
"We do what we can here in Tokyo," 24-year-old chapter director Keiji Oda says in the Brooklyn-accented English he picked up during several years with New York's Guardian Angels. He founded the Tokyo chapter of the nonprofit group in February.
Japan's Angels admit they have spent their first few months battling public bewilderment more than crime.
"We're used to getting stared at," 22-year-old Takashi Murakami says as he patrols a trendy shopping district in the capital.
But the Japanese Angels take their jobs seriously.
They patrol Tokyo's subways and streets Thursday through Sunday in the afternoons and nights, communicating on $3,000 walkie-talkies donated by Motorola, and they use hand signals and code names such as Snoopy and Penny.
The rest of the week they meet in a park near their headquarters to practice self-defense techniques and first aid.
On a recent Saturday night they walked an entertainment district until nearly 4 a.m., picking up trash, ripping down pornographic posters and looking after drunken teens curled up like question marks on the pavement. Pedestrians -- even police officers -- looked on and scratched their heads.
Although the Japanese Angels have yet to see the kind of action familiar to their New York and Los Angeles counterparts, they already boast a few Japanese-style success stories.
They have rescued sauced "salary-men" who have stumbled onto train tracks, and driven off teen-age motorcycle gangs hogging public sidewalks. They've stopped kids from covering public bathrooms with graffiti, and intervened when they've seen women being roughed up by boyfriends.
"When people see a guy fighting with his girl, nobody will do anything about it -- not even look at them -- because they think it's none of their business," Oda says. "Japanese communities haven't been taken over by criminals; they've been taken over by apathy."
Oda said he thinks that such attitudes could someday give rise to the level of crime found in the United States. So the Japanese Angels have made indifference -- and the reluctance of Japanese to stand out from the crowd -- Public Enemy No. 1.
Oda grew up behind his parent's kimono shop on the northern island of Hokkaido before going to the United States as a student. His college roommate introduced him to the Guardian Angels in Boston. Oda liked it so much he wound up spending more than five years with the group in Boston and New York.
He decided to establish the Angels in Tokyo last year after witnessing the slow government response to last year's Kobe earthquake and, later, the ease with which the Aum Supreme Truth cult apparently carried out its subway attack.
Some Japanese are beginning to take note. The news media are starting to pay attention, although a couple of stories have portrayed the Angels as garbage collectors with an attitude. Local governments around the country also are starting to call Oda to seek his advice on how to set up their own anti-crime patrols or, in some cases, how to handle local crime problems.
The few Tokyoites who recognize the Guardian Angels seem happy to have them around.
"I definitely feel like there is more crime around here nowadays," says 50-year-old Taeko Saito, selling cigarettes and candy in a small kiosk. "I feel safer knowing a group like the Guardian Angels is here."
Government statistics show that while the overall crime rate in Japan is falling, the number of violent crimes is rising. According to the National Police Agency, the number of homicides rose 4 percent from 1993 to 1994, and in 1995 police confiscated a record 1,833 guns, persuading police to take the rare step of asking for 3,500 more officers.
The Angels are afraid of treading too heavily on police department turf and have been working hard to establish a rapport with officers. The Angels begin each patrol with a crisp salute to the officers stationed on the group's route; the officers occasionally return an amused half-salute, although often they stare back with indifference.
The Angels regularly drop by police stations to chat and pass along information. "You don't see New York City cops and Guardian Angels exchanging information like this," Oda says.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Agency isn't saying much about the Angels. Spokesman Nao Fuji would say only that the agency knows of the Guardian Angels and appreciates their cooperation, but offers nothing more.
Oda says he believes the Angels will eventually succeed here, although Japanese laws have confounded the growth of nonprofit organizations. His monthly budget is about $5,000, mostly from private donors, which pays his living expenses and the cost of an office assistant. The office space and nearly everything in it are donated.
Volunteerism is just beginning to take root in Japan, a country where one's family has long been the traditional source of all social support. Oda says more education is needed before the Japanese fully embrace the idea.
"Most Japanese think being a volunteer means you have to quit your job and go away for a few months and work with refugees or something," he says.
"They don't imagine it's something you can fit into your daily life."
Still, interest in the Tokyo chapter is higher than he expected. Already there are 81 Japanese Angels -- 30 percent of them women -- who range in age from 16 to 59. Most work in offices by day; they volunteer to be Angels for all kinds of reasons.
"I had no interest in volunteerism, but then when the Kobe earthquake hit last year, I saw all the people living in tents and got interested," says Masaya Yamamoto, a 21-year-old university student and founding member of the Tokyo chapter.
"My friends can't understand what I'm doing."
The Angels hope to set up branches in Osaka and in Fukuoka -- on the southern island of Kyushu -- and perhaps even move into Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Pub Date: 8/17/96