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JAPAN SAFE? REPORT CALLS THAT A MYTH

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It's official. The Kobe earthquake, a lethal subway gas attack and a deadly food poisoning epidemic have shattered the myth of Japan as a safe and secure nation.

What analysts have been saying for 1 1/2 years received official confirmation last week in a government report."The Japanese have long believed that they had created a nation which was safe, secure and economically affluent. This has also been accepted internationally," the report issued by the government's Economic Planning Agen-cy said.

"But in recent years, a shadow of doubt has been cast over the safety and security of Japanese society and the faith in the system behind it."

Social changes, such as a rapidly aging population, a dwindling birthrate and the end of lifelong employment practices, are also causing insecurity and changing the perceptions Japanese held about their country, the report said.

Several natural disasters and the government's reaction to them have shaken Japan's self-image, it added.

This year, a mass food poisoning outbreak caused by the O-157 colon bacillus claimed 11 lives and made more than 9,000 ill nationwide. Health officials have not discovered the cause.

The Kobe earthquake in January 1995 and the feeble government response to it proved that Japan was ill-equipped to cope with natural disasters.

Compared with the 1994 earthquake in Los Angeles, five times more buildings were damaged and the death toll of more than 6,300 was more than 100 times as high as in Los Angeles, the report said.

The safety myth was exploded by the March 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, which killed 12 and left more than 5,000 ill when sarin nerve gas was released on the trains.

Members of the Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth sect) are now on trial for the attack. A sect member is also suspected of shooting Japan's top police official last year.

Japan has long boasted of economic and social stability brought about by a well-educated population hired by companies that believed in jobs for life.

The stable incomes, in turn, have helped to keep the crime rate and the number of divorces and single-parent families low, the report said.

Though Japan remains safe from violent crimes compared with other countries, a rise in illegal gun possession is also eroding the security Japan used to know, it said.

Worsening employment conditions among young people can also lead to increased crime rates, it added.

Companies have cut staffing levels and held back pay hikes to survive the years of recession after the collapse of the late 1980s economic "bubble" of inflated stock and land prices.