Educational Reform is Needed to Deal With Social Problems Such as Bullying, Dropouts and Examination Hell

In the past few years a stream of atrocities committed by Japanese students has been reported in the international media: a 13-year old stabbed his teacher to death after she reprimanded him for being late for school. A few days before a high school student had threatened a fellow pupil with a knife. A short while later a 15-year old attacked a policeman in an attempt to steal his gun. However, the incident that shocked the public most was that of the savage murder of a 14-year old by a fellow student. What horrified both the Japanese and the international audience most was not just the young age of the offender but that he placed the severed head of his victim on the school gate after the killing.

Current tendencies in youth behaviour

All these cases could be seen as being completely unrelated, gaining weight simply because they occurred in such short succession. This is, however, not the way it is perceived in Japan. Such acts of violence are seen as an extreme manifestation of a general decline in the moral values of young people and are placed on the same level as other breaches of rules forced upon children by grown-ups such as truancy (futoko), bullying (ijime) and “dating for compensation” (enjo kosai). “Rage” and “brutalisation” have become the new buzzwords to characterise students’ behaviour. In countless debates, educational experts lament the disintegration of classroom discipline, teachers losing authority and the relationships between teachers and students becoming more distant. Experts claim that schoolchildren no longer obey, defy school rules and are careless (Anon, 1998).

This perception has resulted in a wide consensus in Japanese sociological and pedagogic literature. When analysed more closely it becomes apparent that only a small number of recurring characteristics and explanations are applied to all forms of deviant behaviour. This serves to underline the fact that that from the Japanese point of view the various forms of deviant behaviour are simply symptoms of one and the same problem – today’s youth is refusing to obey adults. They no longer have any stable moral values and through their actions are questioning the current norms of social cohesion. As so many subscribe to this opinion, it is evident why it has become one of society’s most pressing issues, relating to questions such as conformity and society’s favoured education policy which are fundamental to Japan’s self-image. From the Japanese point of view the crisis has become so severe that it threatens to destabilise the foundations of society.

Before addressing the possible causes for the change in behaviour of school children it is necessary to briefly analyse statistical data surrounding violence and deviant behaviour of students in Japan. Although rising numbers of media reports might suggest that recent outbursts of violence are a relatively new phenomenon, statistics indicate that many stories are being blown out of proportion. Truancy for example, often said to be a relatively new occurrence, was actually more serious an issue in 1955. In that year 3.3% of students failed to turn up for school on more that 50 days. This number then continually declined until 1994 when it slowly rose again (Takigawa 1998:165). The level of 1995 has never actually been reached. In 1996, for example, 0.2% of primary school students and 1.4% of middle school students played truant (nihon kodomo wo mamorukai 1998:139), which would show that the problem is not quite as acute as some media reports might suggest.

Other statistics add weight to the argument that violence in schools is not a new problem and that it has also not been continually rising. Results released by the education office (kyoiku iinkai) show that since records began in the early 80s cases have not constantly risen year on year but have instead fluctuated, reaching their lowest point in 1991 (Shimizu 1998). If the data released by the police are taken as a basis for calculations then the number of registered cases has actually fallen since the 80s (Homusho homu sogo kenkyusho 1997:432). As only more serious cases are reported to the police, these figures would seem to indicate that violence and extreme cases of aggression are in fact, contrary to popular belief, falling. Furthermore, when viewed from an international perspective, Japan has, together with Korea, by far the lowest rates of youth crime in the world.

“Scapegoat school” – reasons for deviant behaviour

When analysing the available data it seems that the reaction of the media and the public seems disproportionate when compared with the actual behaviour of the schoolchildren. Even though one might say that the Japanese media exhibits a certain degree of over-sensitivity with regard to deviant youth behaviour, the fact cannot be ignored that current perceived tendencies are increasingly alarming the Japanese public. Their attention is focused on why and how societal norms are violated. The public feels worried and threatened and are desperately searching for the root causes.

Are schools too restrictive?

One of the main reasons cited in causing deviant behaviour is the highly regimented nature of young Japanese students’ lives. The monolithic nature of schools in Japan is blamed for stifling young people’s development. The core element of the far-reaching regimentation are the school regulations (kosoku) that lay down rules stretching from students’ outward appearance, including regulations concerning clothes, hair style and wearing jewellery, to guidelines on behaviour after school and in the holidays. Particularly rules pertaining to hair style and clothes have been heavily criticised as they are enforced severely during years 7 and 9 which is precisely when young people become much more self-conscious of their outward appearance. It is assumed that considerable negative pressure is put upon children because childrens’ self-expression and self-development is suppressed. Therefore authors such as Horio (1997) view the constraints on self-expression, which result from school’s insistence on the primacy of uniformity, as the origin of aggressive tendencies. In addition to being given very little choice on their physical appearance, students’ freedom is further curtailed by the full-day schooling typical in Japan. It is important to remember that even though lessons at state schools finish at around 4pm, they are followed by extra-curricular activities that often do not finish until 7pm. These activities usually include weekends and are, for all intents and purposes, obligatory. This means that schoolchildren’s daily lives, especially those of 12-16 year olds, are highly standardised, and that they have little free time to themselves. This lifestyle leads to even greater pressure that is compounded by the school’s power to record assessments of a child’s social behaviour in the student’s files (naishinsho), the contents of which are not known to the student, even though they are passed on to successive schools. Throwing tantrums, bullying or other forms of physical abuse could therefore be interpreted as a reaction to a lack of freedom.

Academic pressure and social isolation

Academic pressure at Japanese schools is legendary. Because the connection between academic achievement and future status, known as “gakureki shakai”, is impressed upon children a very early age, the school is geared to training the pupils to master the entrance exams for successive academic institutions successfully. Passing or failing these exams can irreversibly change a student’s career plans. The great importance of these exams results in a extremely high academic demand on children pithily termed “examination hell” (jukenjigoku). Many believe that the intense pressure has negative repercussions on the relationship between child and parents (Yonekawa, 1995). Aoki (1997) states that many families still subscribe to the belief that “only an academically successful child is a good child”. He is critical of mothers blindly adopting the values of society’s academic orientation and trying to define themselves as perfect mothers through their children’s school career. Aoki therefore infers that failure at school leads to the danger of parents depriving their children of affection and to a polarisation of the family. These conditions lead to a two-fold strain on students: academic pressure is further intensified at home as the parent-child relationship is reduced to organising the day to facilitate the child’s learning. Children grow up in social vacuums shielded by their mothers from daily demands, which is intended to guarantee an optimum working environment. If a child’s ability is in doubt it is sent to a private “cram school” (juku), where students go several times a week after regular lessons have finished, to continue studying towards exams. Coupled with an increase in one-child families these conditions can lead to a lack of diverse social experiences. The one-dimensionality of daily life which is dominated by learning, is seen by some as being responsible for deficient interpersonal relationships (Fukaya, 1997). Students exhibit low social competence and only basic conflict resolution skills. Takano (1986:71) talks of “deformed personalities” whose relationships with fellow students are characterised by rivalry and mistrust.

Explosive outbursts of aggression in class could also stem from built-up frustration that is not tied to the academic level but is instead the result of reduced living conditions, which can even affect students that are very good in school (Kyoikuhyo, No. 105, 1996). Based on this chain of arguments, students are losing their temper as they have not adequately learnt how to deal with their built up frustration; bullying as a way of reducing stress and seemingly motiveless aggression are the result of society’s fixation on academic success which in turn has led to it defining the Japanese educational system.

Student – teacher relationship

Individual cases of youths committing suicide as a direct consequence of suffering from bullying from fellow students directed attention towards what was going on behind closed doors in the classroom and towards how little teachers and parents knew about deviant and aggressive behaviour of students. The two main targets of criticism are firstly the teachers, who are chronically overworked because they have been swamped by bureaucracy and regulations, and secondly large class sizes with an average 37 students per class. Large class sizes are seen as being responsible for the teacher being frequently excluded from goings on in the class and not having enough direct contact with students. The teachers are ignorant of inter-student relationships. This problem is further compounded by the young age of new teachers who often have problems asserting their authority in the classroom, especially with disrespectful middle school students. Students feel they cannot approach teachers to discuss personal matters and feel anonymous in such large class and year sizes.

Summing up, the arguments state that the responsibility for causing deviant behaviour lies with society’s all-encompassing normative focus on academic excellence. Consequently, parents put greater demands on and have higher expectations of schools. The only way for schools to fulfil these expectations under the current restrictive conditions is through applying pressure and exerting control. The results of this regime are alienation, permanent stress and falling integration of students into schools, all of which can lead to behavioural abnormalities and culminate in outbursts of aggression.

Is educational reform the solution?

The intense discussion on the causes of rising aggression in schools has had consequences. In the UK violent behaviour is seen as being inherently linked to a student’s social environment. Being underprivileged (Anon, 2002), having social problems (Harold, 2001), or being unable to adequately integrate are seen as precipitating violent behaviour. In Japan however, the social background of students who become aggressive is only rarely taken into account. Children that become violent are usually referred to as being “normal” students. There is of course no definition of what constitutes “normal”. What is usually meant is that a child lives in a stable family environment, has a decent academic record and has not stood out through abnormal behaviour. Over and above that what is “normal” is not defined further. This also means that in surveys of schoolchildren on the subjects of abnormal behaviour, bullying or attitudes towards school, no data is collected on the child’s social situation, i.e. parent’s income, the nature of the child’s relationship with its parents or potential conflicts at home. Whilst this information is available for youths that have committed crimes, little is known about the social and family background of the students that are currently exasperating grown-ups with their bad behaviour. There is for example only basic information on how children react to their parents not being able to play a part in their lives because of employment-related commitments, or how children respond to their parents divorcing, these issues having been recently discussed in the media in the UK (Freely 2001 and BBC Online 2001). However, a study recently released by the Japanese government points to a correlation between students who have exhibited abnormal behaviour and a dysfunctional family environment. This research showed that troublemakers had experienced higher than average levels of violence and also alienation in the families (Yomiuri Shimbun, 26.04.1999, page 1).

Ignoring problems in a student’s social environment has had consequences on changes implemented to try and remedy the problems. If there is a causal relationship between unfavourable social conditions and an aggressive disposition, as is the belief in Britain, then it is obvious that preventative measures should centre around compensating for social deficits. When seen from this perspective, responsibility for preventing young people from becoming violent falls to various public institutions. If, however, social inequality is not taken into consideration as a possible cause of deviant behaviour, and it is assumed that every “normal” student in every school in the country could become deviant, then the question of whether or not society is responsible can be negated. This is presently the case in Japan. Current strategies to resolve the problems are pragmatically centred on schools.

The supposed proliferation of diverse forms of deviant and violent behaviour has led to the discussion on educational reform continually intensifying over the past few years. In the meantime, the Japanese education ministry has initiated several reforms that endeavour to alleviate pressure on students through liberalisation, to give students more scope for choice and to increase personal space and free time. The reforms of teaching guidelines that were implemented since the 1st of April 2002 include provisions to introduce interdisciplinary teaching, reducing the time-table and extra-curricular activates, cutting the curriculum (in maths for example), introducing a five-day week for primary and middle school students and implementing measures to enhance students’ ability to handle everyday problems (Asahi Shimbun, Dahlemer Edition, 158/159, 15.01.1999, p26-31). These reforms have not explicitly been conceived to tackle deviant behaviour. They do however address precisely the aspects of the ways schools are organised, and which are seen as being responsible for precipitating bad and violent behaviour. However, experience in the UK has shown that more free time, more choice and fewer rules do not automatically have positive implications for all students.

The considerable amount of time spent both at school and at after-school activities typical of Japanese schools dies not inevitably lead to students being suppressed and overly constrained, but can instead compensate for disparities in student’s social and family lives.

The liberalisation of guidelines and school life in Japan would result in students being allocated a greater responsibility in making decisions on arranging free time, choosing what to study and organising their daily lives.

Whether or not this will lead to the students returning to conformity remains to be seen. It will to a large degree be dependant upon to what extent the students’ new freedoms are open to all. At this point, questions regarding the social background of children and coupled with this, the ability to actually utilise the new scope afforded them, cannot be ignored. Only when problem children that are currently classed as “normal” are actually capable of profiting from the new freedoms in equal measure can the reforms be successful in stemming violence. If this does not happen, the liberalisation as it is currently being implemented may in fact perpetuate the problem and might itself trigger further aggression and isolation.

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