How Japan Reforms Its Violent Kids
URAWA CITY, JAPAN
Michinobu Yamaguchi is marooned.Skip to next paragraph
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He's somewhere between childhood and maturity: Grown-ups still make him shy, yet he can talk about himself with unvarnished insight.
His body has begun the sprint toward adulthood, but his rangy limbs are offset by a child's soft, round face.
His tatami-mat room has a military neatness, though one shelf is cluttered with kids' stuff: comic books, sketches, and letters from home, hundreds of miles away.
He's a student at Musashino National Reform School, a facility for Japan's most difficult juvenile delinquents.
Troubled and troublesome kids have riveted Japan lately, as a wave of juvenile violence swamps front pages, TV programs, and national discussion.
By US standards the figures are low, but in Japan they are impressive: The number of kids between 14 and 20 who committed crimes like murder, robbery, and rape has doubled in the past four years, reaching 2,263 last year.
These numbers and the explosive rage often in evidence have prompted a slew of theorizing as experts offer one-stop explanations to reassure an uneasy public.
But the roots of this trend lie deeper than any one cause.
"This involves the country's economic, political, educational, and moral aspects," says sociologist Mitsuyuki Maniwa. "Looking at Japan today, we realize that almost everything has gone wrong. Japan's politics are poisoned, and its economy collapsed."
"Corporate ethics rule the nation, and education is no exception.... Kids are a reflection of society," he argues, "and the accumulated problems of postwar Japan are erupting through them."
Michinobu ended up at Musashino after his parents' divorce. Sent to live with his father, he was cared for by an older sister until her sudden death left him isolated.
"You could never talk to parents or a teacher," he says quietly. "And even if you tried, they'd never listen. They'd talk down to me as if I wasn't a person."
It's been nine months since he was sent here, and his small face tightens at questions about home.
Neither he nor his teachers will detail the spiral of delinquency and violence that led to his admission, but the fact that he's here is telling.
Japan has 57 regional reform schools, and the cases they can't handle go to one of two government-run schools. Musashino is the boys' facility. The second reformatory is for girls.
Mario Tameishi runs Musashino and sees a clear escalation in the seriousness of crimes kids are committing.
While juvenile crime rates were higher after World War II, most admissions to the 80-year-old reformatory were for theft.
"They were related to hunger," he says, as he sips tea in the school's bustling communal office. "Kids stole to eat."
With the burgeoning wealth of the 1970s, Musashino's delinquents were being brought in for substance abuse involving paint thinner. "Now it's marijuana or worse," Mr. Tameishi says, "and they're stealing cars, not food."
Youth violence isn't new. The fiercely competitive education system and its emphasis on conformity has led to bullying of the kids who don't fit in.
And while teens decry the current violence, they understand the knife-carrying fad that has led to some of the attacks.