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Today's Juvenile Problem and Educational Reform in Japan: Its Reappraisal and Future Implications - Part 1

1. Questioning our social intellect 1

Many societies are now worried about the future of our children, faced with an increase in various juvenile problems including delinquency, violence, bullying and psychic disorders. Japan is not an exception.

Amid a series of shocking murder cases perpetrated by junior high school students, including the murder of an elementary school pupil in Suma Ward, Kobe, and the stabbing to death of a junior high school teacher by a student in Kuroiso, there has been much talk about the need to reduce the stress and pressure on students that give rise to this delinquent and deviant behavior, improve "emotional education," and restore the educational capacity of the family and the community. At the same time, the debate has begun turning to such topics as revising the Juvenile Law and lowering the age from which punishments can be handed out. However, many of these discussions are merely a continuation of the conventional debate about Japanese education; they are stereotypical and full of contradictions. Many of the discussions appear to simply follow trends in Europe and the United States.

The problem of how to control human violence and delinquency has always been an issue. In particular, since the emergence of our mobile and competitive modern society, four approaches have been taken to tackle the issue: the disciplinary approach, the therapeutic approach, the educational approach, and the environmental approach. The disciplinary approach aims to control crime by eliminating criminals or making them repent and serve as a lesson to others; it punishes criminals and deviants. The therapeutic approach provides treatment and correction programs (facilities and places for activities) to the victims of deviancy, delinquency, and crime, to people who have developed deviant inclinations because of their personal history or circumstances, and to people around them.

In contrast to these disciplinary and therapeutic approaches, which are ex post facto methods dealing with only a few people, the educational and environmental approaches advocate the need for and the effectiveness of preliminary preventive programs for many people. Under the belief that the only way to build foundations for controlling delinquency and crime, maintaining order and safety, and promoting welfare and happiness is to cultivate minds that stay away from deviancy, delinquency, and crime, to nurture a sense of friendship, justice, and order, and to foster a respect for sympathy, honor, and dignity, the educational approach is endeavoring to improve various educational programs. The environmental approach, meanwhile, focuses on the living environment and the cultural and social environment as the basis for inducing and promoting delinquency and crime, and advocates the need to change and improve them. This approach argues that delinquency and crime are induced and promoted by such factors as poverty, discrimination, the competitive and alienating social environment, and the stimulation and suggestiveness of the cultural environment, and urges improvements here.

All of these approaches have some truth, and contemporary society rests on the unstable balance among them. When one approach gains ascendancy, the other approaches are belittled and recede into the background. The tendency in Japanese society in recent years has been for the educational approach to retreat and the disciplinary and therapeutic approaches to come to center stage. As for the environmental approach, although the need for improvements has been stated repeatedly, no effective means have been discovered, so it has not taken off. Opinions are divided on the assessment of this tendency, but it is important to confirm the following four points.

First, the retreat of the educational approach is a reflection of a loss of confidence and weakening trust and at the same time a confirmation of these phenomena. Second, the disciplinary dimension gives rise to problems concerning people's sense of justice and also the problem of who should bear responsibility. Third, the therapeutic dimension tends to emphasize individualistic psychotherapy and mental health programs, but while these might supplement programs in the educational dimension, they cannot replace them. And fourth, the problem of the suggestive cultural environment is not so much a problem of freedom of expression and human rights as one of the public's and society's preferences, judgment, and aesthetics. Concerning these points, I believe that our society's intelligence is now being called into question.

It seems that Japan is now moving away from the society which trusted and emphasized the educational approach, as radical educational reforms like diminishing the role of schooling and slimming school have been considered urgently necessary and promoted enthusiastically since the middle 1980s. In this sense, we are now at the critical crossroads. Which way we are going is the question that we should ask seriously; Do we retreat from the educational approach, giving up our social responsibility, and adopt the disciplinary and therapeutic approaches more extensively, holding the individuals concerned (victims and offenders) responsible for various delinquency and maladjustment problems?

Keeping this question in mind, this paper attempts to examine today's juvenile problems and their related arguments in Japan, focussing on recent murder cases by junior high school students, locate them in the context of post-war social and educational changes, and discuss their implication in juvenile problems and policies in postmodern societies including the United States.


2. Sensational treatment of educational and juvenile problems

Since the arrest of a 14-year-old junior high school student as a suspect in the so-called Sakakibara Incident, in which an elementary school student was murdered in Kobe in May 1997, the media carried reports on the family environment and school experience of this youngster almost daily throughout the year, along with comments by scholars and letters from readers, and examined the cruelty and background of the case. The government was also very busy in its response. The director general of the Management and Coordination Agency stated that regulations on publications and television programs were under consideration; the chief cabinet secretary said that there was a need to consider countermeasures, including revision of the Juvenile Law; and in the Prime Minister's Office, a liaison council of related ministries and agencies confirmed their policy of strengthening cooperation toward the prevention of heinous crimes by juveniles. Furthermore, the education minister requested the sixteenth Central Council for Education, which was reconvened in September of the same year, to look into the role of emotional education from infancy. Also, it was decided to bring forward the full implementation of the five-day school week from 2003, as originally scheduled, to 2002.

Then a couple of other shocking events occurred. In January 1998, about half a year after the Kobe incident, a female teacher was stabbed to death by a junior high school boy in the seventh grade in Kuroiso, Tochigi Prefecture (Kuroiso knifing incident). And in March 1998 a junior high school boy in the seventh grade stabbed and killed a seventh grade boy in the same school in Matsuyama, Saitama Prefecture (Matsuyama knifing incident). Since both murder incidents involved knives, some media came out in criticism of a television drama called "Gift," which was thought to be encouraging the purchase of knives by young people. There were discussions about the pros and cons of regulations on knives, regulations on harmful information, introduction of the V-chip, revision of the Juvenile Law, and searching the personal belongings of students in schools.2 Also, since both incidents occurred in schools, they spurred outpourings of criticism against schools, education, and teachers. In addition, the expression "kireru kodomo," meaning "children who easily snap and lose control" became a fashionable term, and the media carried many on-the-spot reports, comments by scholars, and analyses.

Amid this sensational response by the media and hyperactive moves in various quarters, countermeasures have been decided and the reorganization of the living and educational environments of youngsters is proceeding without any proper investigation of the problems and background. Moreover, the reorganization of education in particular is being ruled by irrationality, self-righteousness, elitism, and egoism. This reorganization threatens to demolish the foundation of the good intentions and efforts of schools and teachers. Also, in the author's opinion, the recent discussion of educational and juvenile problems has been so warped that there is no recognition of this bias and danger. So let us now take a look first of all at this bias, danger, and distortion.


3. The uniqueness of the Sakakibara Incident and warped criticism of schools

The Sakakibara Incident was certainly a shocking event. The killer severed the murdered boy's head and left it in front of a school with the following note: "Well, this is the beginning of the game. Stupid police, stop me if you can. It's great fun for me to kill people. I desperately want to see people die. The death penalty for dirty vegetables. A sentence of bloodshed over my great grudge piled up over many years. Schooll [sic] killer. School killer Sakakibara." The killer also sent a second note to a newspaper saying "I can be relieved of daily hatred and feel great peace of mind only when I am committing murder" and "so far, and from now on, I have continued a transparent existence, but I want you to recognize me as a real human being at least in your fantasies."

The remaining body of the murdered boy was discovered in the afternoon of May 27, the same day as his head was found in front of the school. For about a month after that, the media carried almost daily reports on the investigations and pieced together possible images of the criminal. Without exception the weekly magazines carried photos of the victim, and most scholars commented that the crime was probably perpetrated by an adult who had a deep hatred of school, adding interpretations of the criminal's mental state.

About a month after the crime, a third-grade junior high school boy, A, was arrested as a suspect. He confessed to committing the crime and also slash-and-run attacks on two girls, one of whom died. These attacks had taken place in March 1997, also in Kobe's Suma Ward. So the incident immediately changed into one involving juvenile and educational problems.

As I stated above, various quarters became active, and the media and scholars fixed on the expressions "transparent existence" and "my transparent self" as keywords for understanding today's children. The incident was also positioned in the context of criticism of schools and educational reform, and, it was suggested that, in the background lay such phenomena as "the state of blockage," "the state of suffocation," and "school stress." A framework for interpreting the incident was established that lent support to the excess schooling and need for slimmer school arguments. Moreover, even after the results of a psychological appraisal of the boy were announced, this framework has not basically been changed. Certainly the simplistic arguments blaming schools for the incident have declined relatively, but they are still referred to as reasons for the need and urgency of educational reform and school reform.

And then about half a year later, in January 1998, the Kuroiso knifing incident occurred, and the expression "kireru kodomo" was added to the list of key terms, becoming a fixed part of the terminology. Many classroom teachers reported that their junior high schools were in such a condition that it would not be strange if a similar kind of incident occurred there any time. Moreover, the increase of classroom disruption in elementary schools and unruly junior high schools began to dominate the media and attract wide attention.

Nevertheless, is it right to look at the Sakakibara Incident and the Kuroiso knifing incident in the same light, to generalize them as juvenile and educational problems, and use them as grounds for educational reform and regulations on harmful information? In the author's opinion, the two incidents are completely different. While the former is, in a sense, a unique case perpetrated by a special youth, the latter requires appropriate consideration and response as an educational and juvenile problem.

Regarding this point, the author wrote an article at the beginning of July 1997, just after the arrest of A as a suspect in the Sakakibara Incident.3 In this article, I wrote that "since it can be considered that the suspect's personal characteristics played a large role in this incident, careful and appropriate considerations are necessary." Also, "We should not generalize the incident to see problems in the educational system, schools, and the efficiency-first society." And, "If there were problems in the school or the home, couldn't we have noticed the seriousness of the situation before the abnormal behavior escalated? And couldn't we have applied appropriate means to control it?" Now that A's personal history and the results of a psychological appraisal were announced to an extent, I believe that these views were correct.4

According to reports since then, however, it appears that A did receive an examination by a psychiatrist and counseling at a child counseling center, but he was diagnosed as having no mental illness. Moreover, the guidance apparently amounted to "let him develop freely, just as he likes." If that is so, then the diagnosis and guidance of these professionals caused a grave mistake.

In my personal view, the media and scholars do not seem to have made many critical comments about the diagnosis and guidance of these professionals. If so, how should we interpret this magnanimity? Of course, the author does not intend to say that we should blame the psychiatrists or the officials at the child counseling center. The problem lies in the gap between the criticism of schools and teachers and the favorable attitude toward the psychiatrists, counselors, and child counseling center. Why are schools and teachers criticized every time something happens and discussions rush to highlight the need for systematic reform and slimmer schools? Why is it that psychiatrists, counselors, and child counseling centers are not only left free of criticism, people actually talk about the need to increase their numbers? This is a problem that cannot be ignored.

The reason, needless to say, is that the rather negative view of school education as a universalized public system and in particular of elementary and junior high school education as something that is forced on children as compulsory education has spread. In contrast, psychiatrists, counselors, and child counseling centers are not coercive, and they are not necessarily adequately widespread, either. But even taking into consideration these essential and circumstantial differences, it must be said that the different evaluations of the two sides in relation to the Sakakibara Incident are full of contradictions.

Even though it has been made clear that A engaged in abnormal behavior from his elementary school days, that the death of his grandmother gave an impetus to this inclination, and that he had a mental disorder, why is it that emphasis is still placed on the fact that A was a junior high school student, that as the background to the incident, stress is placed on the attitude of overly education-oriented parents, the high level of the local community's enthusiasm for education, the school's child guidance setup, and the role of the stress-breeding school, and that criticism of schools and calls for educational reform continue to be voiced? There seems to be a warped view or mentality that is not satisfied unless it can blame school education for everything.


1. A major part of this section is an English version of the author's previous article entitled "Questioning our Social Intellect" (Towareru Shakai no Chisei),Quarterly Journal: Social Safety (Kikan Shakai Anzen), No.20,1998, P. 3.

2. The V-chip (the "V" stands for violence) is a semiconductor device that, in order to regulate excessively violent and sexual scenes in television programs, automatically switches off programs with such scenes. Since the Central Council on Education, which had been discussing modes of "emotional education," requested various related quarters to consider its introduction in an interim report, the pros and cons of the V-chip have been widely discussed. See a special feature on "Juvenile Problems and Broadcasting Stations" (in Japanese) in the August 1998 issue of the monthly Gekkan Minpo (Monthly Commercial Broadcasting) of the National Association of Commercial Broadcasters in Japan, including the author's article, "Juvenile Problems and the Media Environment" (in Japanese), pp. 8-11.

3. Hidenori Fujita,"Japanese Education at a Crossroads 5: 'Education of the Mind' or 'Bonds of the Mind'?" (in Japanese), Shinken News (Junior High Edition), No. 220, August 1, 1997.

4. In the psychological appraisal, the diagnostic terms "behavior disorder, sexual disorder, and disassociation disorder" were handed down, and it was commented that "since the boy is in a preliminary stage of mental illness, there is a danger that schizophrenia will develop unless treatment is provided." See Akira Fukushima, "The Psychiatry of Sakakibara" (in Japanese) in Hanzai to Hikko (Crime and Delinquency), No. 114, November 1997.
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Hidenori Fujita
Professor Hidenori Fujita is a member of the faculty of the University of Tokyo, Graduate School of Education. His field of study is Sociology of Education and he is affiliated with the Center for Clinical Research on School Development at the University of Tokyo. This paper was presented at the Japan-United States Conference on Juvenile Problems and Violence in a Changing Society" held in Tokyo, Japan from February 26 to 28, 1999. A major part of this paper, except for the first and last sections, is an English translation of the author's article, entitled "Today's Juvenile Problem as Seen from Educational Sociology," Crime and Delinquency (Hanzai to Hikou), No.117, August 1998, pp.4-26.
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