TOKYO — Kota Takaba carefully times his arrival at school.
The fifth-grader looks at first like any other Japanese student, his locker-sized leather backpack dwarfing his slight shoulders. But in conformity-oriented Japan, he is an unheard-of half-hour late.
And after he changes into his school slippers, Kota bypasses his classroom and heads instead for the nurse's office, where he'll spend most of the day chatting with teachers and occasionally studying.
With comfortable furniture and dozens of books, the office is a far cry from his busy classroom at Minami Oya Elementary School. And it's a place that may keep him from becoming one of a growing number of Japanese children who refuse to attend school.
Such "refusers" pose an increasing challenge in a society where standing out is frowned upon, personal feelings are rarely discussed, and families keep problems to themselves.
"I like to read here," Kota says, jousting playfully with Junko Ueki, the school nurse. "I am like Narita Bryan [a famous racehorse] because of all the knowledge I have."
These rooms, known as hokenshitsu, are a fledgling effort to reach out to the country's troubled or faltering students. Such children often bow out of the system entirely rather than feel lost among large classes, the increasing demands of higher grade levels, and the pressure of entrance exams for high school and college. Peer pressure or bullying can also play a role.
In a nation obsessed with academic achievement, dropping out is a daring step that can throw the future into question - and it's often prompted by the perception that no alternatives exist.
That's been true until recently. But rising truancy and lack of discipline have forced education officials in Japan to acknowledge that a "one size fits all" approach can allow many children to slip between the cracks and right out the school gates.
The counseling rooms, they hope, are a guarded offering to students in need of a radically different experience, one where gentle guidance and casual conversation are the norm, and any hint of pressure is frowned upon.
"Hokenshitsu are a learning space for how to function better," says Tomiko Miki, an official at the Education Ministry's Health Education division and a former school nurse.
She points out that the primary objective is to get the students back into regular classes.
But temporarily, "Studying can mean learning to communicate with others" about needs.
Good news for troubled students
That may be welcome news to the nearly 10,000 students who spent at least part of their day in a school clinic last year, according to a recent Ministry of Education report.
While still small, the number has set off alarm bells because it has nearly doubled in this decade.
School officials have also been sobered by an almost fourfold increase in primary-school absentees. The number of "refusers" in middle-school, where the problem is most acute, has jumped more than five times to about 62,000 children last year.
Meeting these children's needs may test a system long praised for its successes, but geared heavily toward long hours of study and lecture-style instruction, typically starting with junior high school.
But as with traditional family roles under new pressures, from more working parents to less connection with supportive grandparents, there is a growing sense that schools may have to take a more active role in meeting the emotional needs of children.
Among the initiatives: redefining the role of the nurse's office to include a receptive ear and a friendly atmosphere.
"If teachers listen, they can often turn a situation around," says Yoshie Oba, who runs an alternative classroom in conjunction with a Tokyo public school.
"Many of these children are normal students who just have some problem with communication in large, competitive settings."
Opening lines of communication
Indeed, communication is at the heart of the problem, according to numerous educators. Often, they say, students don't feel comfortable talking about school problems with parents who prefer to track academic prowess.
Teachers trying to educate a typical class of 40 students have little time to chat freely or slow down for laggards. And children raised on a steady diet of electronic entertainment don't always know how to express themselves clearly.
That's the view of Ms. Ueki at Minami Oya school. Her solution is to chat with students as long as they want. She also acts as a go-between for children and their teachers.
On this day, after listening to Kota rattle off statistics about his favorite horses, she cajoles him into attending his homeroom's health class, which she is teaching.
Then together, they zip back down to her office, where a break brings in a bevy of students in search of a pat on the head or a little relaxed time with friends.
Ueki is pleased that several regular students mix with kids who don't always attend class. It's a signal that these children aren't being stigmatized.
"[This room] is a social sort of place, and it's a shelter for kids," she says. "Here we don't evaluate them, and it's comfortable."
Resistance to change
But while many teachers voice support for this new approach, the idea is meeting resistance in other quarters.
Parents, for one, often don't want to hear that their child has difficulties, although many do become willing to work with the school when a problem becomes acute.
Some adults see the rising tide of children who go to the nurse's office for something other than physical needs as a fad that schools may only fuel by accommodating them.
And then there's the fundamental challenge of setting a new course in a system long dominated by keeping the group together and pressing for clearly defined academic hurdles.
Indeed, the Education Ministry's Ms. Miki cites the cold shoulder she got from a school where she campaigned for three years to ease up on children and promote a little more fun in the classroom.
But the results - happier and more engaged students - eventually won teachers over, she says.
'At a turning point'
Ueki understands the concerns. But, she says, there's no reversing course.
"We're at a turning point. A decade or two ago, teachers would blow on a whistle and say, 'turn right,' and we did. Now, teachers think that this isn't best for kids."
She doesn't delude herself that change will be rapid. But five years ago no one was talking about helping "refusers" by customizing the pace of teaching to meet individual needs and opening up the nurse's facility to provide an alternative learning space. Today, it's an accepted feature of her school.
"The responsibility of the school is going to be greater," Ueki declares. "We'll go where the family was responsible before."