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Today's Juvenile Problem and Educational Reform in Japan: Its Reappraisal and Future Implications - Part 2

4. The Kuroiso knifing incident and the increase of "kireru kodomo" and "unruly schools"

Unlike the Kobe case, the Kuroiso and Matsuyama knifing incidents are important as symbols of one aspect of the problems surrounding schools and youngsters in recent years.

Regarding this point, just after the Kuroiso knifing incident, the author wrote an article in which I stated as follows: "It is too much of a one-sided view to simply see the two [the Kobe and Kuroiso incidents] as similar and to blame schools for excessive education. . . . The problem is rather that the number of children who suddenly go berserk is increasing, the impulsiveness and violent nature of young people is tending to increase, and the number of schools and classrooms (unruly schools) where the insolent attitudes and behavior of children are evident is increasing." This article indicated the need for appropriate responses taking into account the situation and background.5 The problem is how to view this situation and background.

After both the Kobe and Kuroiso incidents, the media carried statements by children saying that they "understand the feelings of the youth who did it," "understand the feeling of anger," and "might perhaps explode myself." They have emphasized the desolate souls of children and, as a background, the sense of blockage among children and school stress. As I have already explained, however, it is wrong to look at these two incidents in the same light.

The children quoted in the media certainly made these statements. But as far as this author heard anyway, with regard to the bizarre Kobe incident, in which the killer not only murdered his victim but beheaded the dead body and placed the head in front of a school gate, there were no voices of sympathy for the murderer. And even if there were, there is a wide gap between an impulsive action that leads to injury or murder and a bizarre killing complete with dismemberment of the dead body. This author does not believe that the kind of mentality required to step easily across this line is spreading at all. After all, it is an action that belongs to a world ruled by hatred and madness, a world ruled by deranged minds and lax emotions.

In contrast, the Kuroiso and other knifing incidents are impulsive and reckless acts within the framework of daily life; they are an extension of domestic violence and school violence. This mentality, relationship, and behavior pattern are extensions of a warped daily life. The problem is that this warped daily life seems to be spreading.

As evident in many reports by teachers and statements by children, it is an indisputable fact that the number of young people who frequently use the word "peeved," the number of young people who manifest these emotions in their attitude and behavior, and the number of young people who soon explode into a frenzy are on the rise. Immediately after the Kuroiso knifing incident, the media reported the fact, and the author himself heard from not a few teachers that "it could have happened anytime" and "I wouldn't be surprise if it happened in my school."

"Unruly schools" have become the focus of attention again. It appears certain that such behavior as disrupting lessons, damaging furniture, violent language to teachers, provocative attitudes, and threats or violence against the weak are increasing, especially in junior high schools. The number of teachers giving these kinds of reports is increasing, and statistics by the Ministry of Education show that the number of cases of school violence, violence against teachers, and violence between students has been spiraling over the last four or five years. For example, in the latter half of the 1980s the number of cases of school violence fell to fewer than 1,000 schools, for an outbreak ratio of about 9%. In the 1990s, however, school violence began to increase again, hitting 1,862 schools in 1996, for an outbreak ratio of 17.7%. The same upward trend can be seen for vandalism, violence against teachers, and violence between students.

The important thing about the Kuroiso knifing incident is that it can be seen as a symbol of the problems facing youth and schools. And if this view is correct, the question is how to understand the present situation of young people and schools. How should we interpret its character and background, and what countermeasures should we take?

5. The "school stress" argument and the "slimmer school" and "liberalization" arguments

Regarding this point, the most common view can be called the "school stress" theory. This view has been at the center of the debate on educational reform in recent years in Japan, and it advocates slimmer schools and liberalization as solutions. Simplifying the logic of this argument, it can be described as follows:

The number of children who get irritated, become peeved, and easily fly into a rage has been increasing in recent years. However, these children are certainly not special; they are quite ordinary children. Weighed down by school education, which is characterized by competition over examinations, uniform education, and straightjacket controls, and a coercive and forceful school-oriented society, these children are placed in a suffocating situation and accumulate much school stress. So children must be freed from school stress by, for example, creating slimmer schools, expanding freedom of choice, and changing the bureaucratic style of schools.

For this purpose, it is necessary to bring back leeway and enrich the lives and school lives of children by fully introducing the five-day school week and correcting the cram-style education. Through the careful selection of content, the introduction of general study time, and so on, lessons must be made attractive and enable children to study at their own initiative. Through the introduction of integrated public junior and senior high schools, flexibility in catchment areas, increase of the number of elective subjects, and so on, we must respect the right of children to choose for themselves and decide for themselves and create an educational system that responds to the individual personalities and needs of children. It is necessary to make schools slimmer, revise the forceful element in public schools, and liberate children from the coercive idea that they "must go to school." In other words, according to this argument, the systematic reforms that have been promoted in recent years are appropriate.

6. Errors of the "school stress" argument

But is this really so? In the author's opinion, there are at least three errors or deceptions. First, there is the error of generalizing children who are "irritable, peevish, easily snap and lose control" as "ordinary children." Second, there is the error of reducing the cause of this attitude and behavior of being "irritable, peevish, easily snapping and losing control" to "school stress." And third, there is deception in the attempt to justify the series of systematic reforms using these children who are "irritable, peevish, easily snap and lose control" as a pretext. Needless to say, the third deception is the most appalling.

It is a fact that the number of children who are "irritable, peevish, easily snap and lose control" is on the rise. And it also seems true that this attitude and behavior of being "irritable, peevish, easily snapping and losing control" can occur in "ordinary" children, too. But nevertheless, it is quite wrong to conclude that this attitude and behavior that are at the epicenter of unruly schools are characteristics of a large number of children.

The image that most people have of the "ordinary child" probably includes the following two characteristics. First, the child is usually well-behaved and serious, does not have especially poor academic results, and does not have any special problems in his or her daily attitudes. Second, at least on the outside, there do not appear to be any special problems in the child's family environment, and appropriate consideration is being given in the home to the child's education and life. In both cases, the comment that children who commit knifing offenses and so on are "ordinary children" has the power to stir up anxiety among people. When told so, it is not surprising that many parents become anxious and wonder whether their own children could impulsively inflict injury on others. This is especially so in the case of parents who have boys. In this sense, however, the "irritable, peevish, frenzied children" who become the epicenter of unruly schools are certainly not "ordinary children." They are children who frequently get irritated, become peeved, and fly off the handle. Most teachers and students understand this. In this sense, at least in the class or the school, they are "special children."

Having said that, however, it is not necessarily the case that these children are ready to engage in outrageous acts at any time. And on the other hand, there is always a possibility that "ordinary children" might undertake such acts. The problem is that by generalizing these children as "ordinary children," we avoid taking responsibility and making the effort to confront their problems and troubles and look squarely at the background. Furthermore, this approach tends to lead measures to solve the problem into the macro dimension of the education system and the educational capacity of the family and the community.

The same error holds for the "school stress" argument. They argue that school stress occurs when children feel pressure from exam competition, uniform education, and straightjacket controls. It arises out of the contradictions and friction that exist between our schooled society, on the one hand, which puts value on school success and places rules and regulations, and on the other, the affluent and diverse information and consumption-oriented society, which encourages an inclination toward the present and individuality. Since halting or changing the progress of this affluent and diverse information and consumption-oriented society is neither feasible nor desired, it is advocated that we must change the other source of stress-that is, the schools and the education-oriented society. Thus, support is given to the series of educational system reforms. But there are, I think, at least three problems in this argument.

First, like the argument about "ordinary children," there is a tendency to excessively generalize, seeing the phenomena of "becoming peevish" and "snapping and losing control" and school stress as problems common to all children. Second, there is also a tendency toward excessive generalization on the causative side, with school stress being interpreted as the cause of almost all so-called school disorders, including the problem of children who are peevish, snap and lose control, the problems of bullying and absenteeism, and the problems of deviancy and delinquency. It is assumed that pressure and stress definitely lie in the background of children's problematic behavior and maladjustment, and indeed this assumption is not even questioned. Third, there is a tendency to assume that a situation without any pressure or stress is ideal, to see all things that might be a source of pressure and stress as the roots of evil, and to advocate their elimination or reform as the best method of solving the problem and improving the situation. These three excessive generalizations and simplifications, as I have already stated, result in the justification and promotion of a series of educational system reforms such as the introduction of a five-day school week and combined junior and senior schools (six-year secondary schools). But if pressure and stress are really the causes of the various juvenile problems, and if the best method of improving the situation is to alleviate or eradicate them, then how should we view the fact that society itself, including adult society, is nothing but a huge storehouse of pressure and stress? Are these people suggesting that we can make or should make only the world of teenagers free of pressure and stress?

In this way, both the "ordinary child" argument and the "school stress" argument make the mistake of excessive generalization, which, it must be said, makes the problem ambiguous and warps our response. Be that as it may, I should add that I do not see the whole "school stress" argument as mistaken. In particular, regarding the conditions surrounding young people today and the special features of their living and educational environments, my ideas, generally speaking, are as follows. To repeat, the problem lies in excessive generalization and reductionism and then proposing reforms on the basis of what is left. And then there is a transformation from error to deception in justifying the series of system reforms on the pretext of the increase in children who are "peevish, easily snap and lose control," bullying, and absenteeism.

5. Hidenori Fujita, "Japanese Education at a Crossroads 12: Why Do Children Fly into a Frenzy?" (in Japanese), Shinken News (Junior High Edition, No. 228, April 1, 1998.

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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