Classroom Rebels

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An American visiting a Japanese high school is struck by a curious piece of Americana that appears again and again on notebooks and textbook covers. It is the image of James Dean, the young actor of the 1950's whose life and death symbolized for a generation of Americans the loneliness of cultural alienation.

The incongruity of finding photographs of this prototypical American rebel in a setting otherwise emblematic of order and discipline is jarring. But a glance through several Japanese newspapers, where reports of school violence and delinquency are receiving growing attention, offers hints of the possible reasons for the symbol's popularity.

Balking at the Norm

Takehide Yokoo, deputy director of Japan's National Institute for Education Research (N.I.E.R.) and an author of a recent institute report on the causes of and possible cures for school violence, says he is not surprised that the American anti-hero has struck a resonant chord in some of his nation's young people.

James Dean is a natural idol, he says, for youths who feel disconnected from their world, who do not share society's currently admired values, and who balk at the rigid social ordering that forms the hidden agenda of schooling and tests.

Surge in School, Youth Violence

Mr. Yokoo's study, released last fall, was prompted by an alarming rise during 1982 in Japan's relatively low incidence of school violence, following years of steady but less dramatic annual rises. Though the actual numbers are minuscule by American standards--amounting to fewer incidents in total than might be expected in New York City alone in a given year--they have alarmed the Japanese because they signal the emergence in the highly valued school environment of traits and attitudes completely alien to the culture: lack of discipline, loss of respect for authority, antipathy to group values, and weakened moral fiber.

Ministry of Education statistics show that junior high schools, where the number of violent incidents has doubled since 1978, are the major problem area. But they also indicate that at the noncompulsory high-school level, where motivation to study is much greater, the number of serious behavior problems has grown steadily as well.

Most shocking to the Japanese has been the dramatic growth in juvenile crime. In 1982, youths between the ages of 14 and 20 accounted for almost 45 percent of all the criminal cases investigated by the police. The 1982 data marked the largest annual percentage of juvenile-crime incidents since the end of World War II.

A Shocking Fatality

The school-related incidents range from vandalism and theft to more serious crimes, but assaults against teachers are by far the most frequent. Of the 1,683 cases of school violence logged by police last year, 742 were attacks on teachers. In 1982--the peak year for such problems--1,123 junior-high-school teachers were the victims of school violence, according to the police, while only 39 senior-high teachers were so.

Last month in the northern harbor city of Aomori, a 24-year-old music teacher died after being hit on the neck by a 15-year-old student he had ordered out of the classroom because the student was drunk and disorderly. It was the first such fatality, but in a nation where the incidence of murder and assault is among the lowest in the world, the Aomori teacher's death has intensified what is already a hot political issue.

Call for Moral Education

Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone has used the climbing school-violence rate to buttress his key reform proposal: giving moral education a greater share of the national curriculum. During the last year, his administration's Ministry of Education began holding regular study meetings with public-school principals and vice principals to discuss moral education and put together a set of optional textbooks on the subject featuring the exemplary lives from Japanese history.

The press has also detected in the Prime Minister's remarks on the subject a hint of the direction in which he wants his new Ad Hoc Commission on Education to move. Recently, for example, he said this:

"After the defeat in World War II, Confucian and Buddhist morality made way for individualism. As it turned out, violence and selfishness prevailed. It is high time that we reviewed Japan's present spiritual civilization in an attempt to give a new dimension to school education."

Problem With 'Family Environment'

But others aren't so sure that morality lessons are enough. Says Hiroshi Kida, the N.I.E.R's director general and a former top-ranking education-ministry official: "What should come first is a good family environment, without which school-sponsored moral education would not produce positive results."

Indeed, though studies from many different quarters implicate various educational practices in the school-violence phenomenon, most also agree that basic changes in Japanese society--a weakening of the strong extended-family concept and an erosion of traditions that close-knit the communal society--are at the heart of the problem.

A 1982 booklet on school violence issued by the education ministry charged that problem students had become excessively egocentric because they had no social training from their parents and "don't really know right from wrong or how to get along with others." In that same year, a report by the Prime Minister's Youth Problems Council blamed "materialism" for the social alienation.

Both charges, while unsubstantiated by statistics, carry a certain common-sense logic in light of several well-documented changes in the Japanese population. During its period of rising affluence, the country has witnessed a dramatic population shift from rural to urban settings. Whole new areas called "bed towns"--the equivalent of America's "bedroom communities"--now support a growing number of affluent young commuting workers with one or, at most, two children, who attend schools built to accommodate them. These communities, some education critics charge, lack both cultural history for the young to assimilate and adequate community recreation areas for play and socialization.

New Demography, More Permissiveness

Children raised in such sterile new suburban areas have no conception of social solidarity, says the sociologist Tadashi Fukutake, author of Japanese Society Today. Trends in juvenile crime, he says, "cannot be divorced from the many changes in family life that have occurred since the war," among them rising divorce rates and a trend toward smaller families.

Japan has experienced a dramatically declining birth rate. It began dropping after a postwar baby boom and by the mid-1950's was one of the lowest in the world; at the same time, average family income has been rapidly escalating.

Small families are now the norm, a situation that, with rising incomes and consumption, has produced what Mr. Fukutake calls "permissiveness, overprotection, and pampering of children."

Takehumi Ohto, the principal of South Junior High School in Hiroshima, agrees. While it is true that Japanese children often spend long hours studying, he says, it is also true that many of them lack the self-discipline needed to do the work required. To describe today's students, he uses some words echoed by other teachers and principals: the students "lack endurance," are overly "indulged" by their parents, and are "spoiled," he says.

"Parents today have no confidence in raising kids," says Tetsuo Oguni, principal of the Kaichi elementary school in Kyoto. "Years ago, they took responsibility. They had guts enough to bring up kids and discipline them at home every day. My own opinion is that parents lack confidence, while at the same time have high hopes for kids to become something in the future."

"Moreover, there is added pressure on families to earn money," he continues. "Years ago, you might have had time to look after kids, you didn't have to worry about the residential problem. Now you have to fight to get your own house; the father and mother have to work hard for money. They forget the traditional way of bringing up children."

Middle-Class Phenomenon

Ironically, notes Mr. Fukutake, the juveniles involved in crime are no longer those from poor or one-parent families. The proportion of delinquents from poor families has dropped from 65 percent to 15 percent, he notes; the proportion from broken homes has decreased from 35 percent to below 15 percent.

The N.I.E.R researcher Yoshihito Yasuhara offers this profile of the children most likely to be involved in school violence: They often live in bedroom communities with "few local traditions to bind the community together"; they lack supervision from their parents, who are too busy or too preoccupied to give them proper attention; they have few goals and often choose bad models for leaders; and, having faced and failed to deal with the pressure to do well on school examinations, they ''lack self-confidence and self-respect."

His latter point--the negative impact of Japan's so-called "examination hell"--is cited by many as the major cause of increasing school violence. Newspapers have even coined the new terms of "battered teacher" and "battered parent" to describe the focus of the violent-behavior pattern reported in stories about the relatively rare students who break under intense exam pressure.

Stresses of 'Uniformism,' Competition

But most authorities, including those assembled by the National Institute for Education Research for its study, attribute the problem to deeper flaws in the educational system. The basic conclusion of the 39-member panel of sociologists, educators, and psychologists is that increasing numbers of "maladjusted children" have been one consequence of an educational system that offers "the traditional philosophy of uniformism" while also pushing students to be "upwardly mobile" by besting their peers in competition.

The study also found that problem students are often those who have become frustrated because they cannot keep pace with the difficult academic content of the standardized curriculum, particularly the mathematics component, and have no recourse but failure.

'Individualistic' Factors

The violence panel, after visiting a dozen public schools that have dealt successfully with rising discipline problems, found these common areas of improvement:

Teachers were "aware," well-trained in managing discipline problems, and used a positive approach.

Efforts were made to broaden the scope of students' experiences, such as providing means for volunteer work outside of school, and teachers tried harder to encourage students' individual talents and abilities.

The schools actively sought the community's support and involvement.

Said Mr. Yokoo in the final report: "We must admit that the school has failed to transform itself in accordance with changes in the society. And the time has come to add more individualistic factors into education."

Less Math, More Teacher Training

Ironically, at a time when many U.S. educators are arguing for more rigorous mathematics education, the violence study also recommended making the mathematics portion of the Japanese curriculum less difficult.

In addition, it leveled criticism at the nation's teacher-training system. Referring to statistics showing that the preponderance of student assaults have been against young teachers--particularly those below the age of 30--the violence group argued that more practical classroom experience is needed before certification than the two-to-three week stints now required. It also noted that frequent transfers of teachers to assure that a balance exists between young and old teachers has been an effective way to limit discipline problems.

Pressured Teacher-Pupil Relationship

The declining respect for classroom teachers, coupled with an increasing insistence that schools provide more of the moral and social teaching once reserved for the home, may, in fact, be an underlying cause of many of the nation's current educational problems, some observers conclude.

In Japan's High Schools, Thomas P. Rohlen describes the traditional relationship between teacher and student in Japan as being that of parent and child--a tie that suggests how disquieting to the Japanese is the breakdown in classroom order. Unlike American high-schoolers, he says, Japanese teen-agers are not considered adults and are not encouraged to be independent. Teachers use the intimate form of address and actually call their students kodomo, or "children," says Mr. Rohlen. Students, in return, use the most respectful term for the teacher, sensei.

Moreover, Japanese parents expect teachers to provide the strict disciplinary measures they themselves forego because of "affection," Mr. Rohlen writes. But various factors, including an influx of young and often inadequately prepared teachers, have begun to change the traditional patterns.

According to a 1980 survey by the Prime Minister's office, both Japanese parents and their teen-age children now tend to separate their respect for the school as an institution from their respect for teachers. When asked whether it should be permissible "to play truant from school," 85 percent of the parents and 80 percent of the students said no. But when asked whether it should be be permissible for students "not to follow a teacher's instructions," only about half of each group said no.

Last year, the Prime Minister's Conference on Culture and Education noted publicly that the greatest number of suggestions and complaints it received from the citizenry during its deliberations concerned teachers. That is a reflection, says Masaki Murata, a teacher in Tokuyama, of the fact that "parents want teachers to take care of everything. Everyone passes the responsibility." (Part three of this series will examine the situation of Japan's teachers.)

The ultimate responsibility for proposing means to solve the country's school-violence problem will probably rest with the government's new Ad Hoc Commission on Education, which is not due to issue its recommendations for three years. In the meantime, increased preventive measures, such as those cited by the recent N.I.E.R. study, have already lowered the rate of violence, which fell last year by about 20 percent--the first such decline in a decade.

But those closest to the situation say that only broad-based and fundamental changes in the way students are schooled will provide a lasting solution. Says the N.I.E.R's  Mr. Yasuhara: "As good soil brings forth good crops, good educational soil--including family, school, and community--brings along good adults. Today, there is something wrong with the educational soil."

Editor of this series is M. Sandra Reeves. Next week, part three of Schooling in Japan will examine the educational impact of changes in the teaching profession and the social role of women.

Vol. 04, Issue 23, Pages 24-26

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