Spoiled, fun-loving Japanese youngsters have just achieved the nation's worst juvenile delinquency rate since World War II. This is the bald conclusion of a government white paper issued at a time when many parents and educationists are fretting about the future direction of the nation's young.
Although the figures arouse concern, they tend to obscure the fact that the majority of youngsters study hard and are obedient.
And although the juvenile delinquency problem is extremely serious by past Japanese standards, there is a feeling that there could be a danger of overreaction.
Crisis of the government survey point out that the questions were somewhat "loaded." For instance, they asked, "Do you want to work hard to become rich?" Or, "Do you wish to study hard to make a name for yourself?"
Many youngsters replied "no," meaning not so much that they did not wish to work hard, but rather that they were not interested in being rich and famous. Admittedly this is due in part to their "soft" home life.
At the same time the statistics speak for themselves.
The number of juveniles punished for crimes in 1979 reached a rate of 14.5 cases per 1,000 minors. Police sources say the 1980 figure will be much higher.
The biggest upsurge has occurred in gangs of hot rodders known as "bosozoku," who, especially during the summer, turn the centers of many major cities into makeshift race circuits.
Apart from reckless driving, the bosozoku have become involved in other crimes, such as theft, violence, and drug-taking. In 1979 their arrest rate was 47.8 percent above the previous year.
The government white paper also reports major increases in crime rates for theft, particularly shoplifting (up 30.2 percent) and the stealing of motorcycles (up 13.2 percent) and bicycles (up 11.2 percent).
It notes the emergence of large shoplifting gangs organized by junior high and even elementary school pupils who "can strip a shop bare like locusts in a matter of minutes."
On sexual crimes, it notes that 114 junior high schoolboys were arrested last year for rape, a 74 percent increase over the previous year. For girls, prostitution has emerged as a leading crime category.
Officials blame the permissiveness on sexually explicit films, television programs, and pornographic comics and magazines freely available to youngsters.
The sexual pressures on immature minds are growing. The northern island of Hokkaido, much more conservative than notoriously permissive areas like Tokyo, has been shocked by a recent survey of high school girls indicating that one in 20 had come under pressure at one time or another to work as a part-time prostitute, and one in 10 thought prostitution wasn't so bad.
Experts on juvenile delinquency say the most dangerous years are those of junior high school. There, for the first time, youngsters come face to face with the harsh real world.
The pressures mount on them at school and at home to succeed in tough entrance examinations for senior high school, graduation from which is essential for even the lowest white collar job.
Youngsters begin to feel they are more ciphers with no separate identity, pulled and pushed around to satisfy adult ego.
Suicide rates are soaring in this age group. But just as disturbing is an explosion of violence.
A report released by the National Police Agency reveals the number of violent acts committed by students in 1980 was three times the level of the year before.
The agency says 42 percent of all criminals arrested during the year were juveniles, almost half of them under 15 years of age. And violence was the area where the greatest increase was reported.
One explanation offered was the inability of some students to keep up with the extremely fast pace of the curriculum, designed to impart the vast quantities of knowledge needed to pass the extremely stiff senior high school examinations. It was found that frustration bred by failure (and loss of face) easily leads to mindless violence against symbols of authority.
This year school authorities have had to call on police on a number of occasions to quell outright riots in classrooms and rescue imprisoned teachers. One private school, wracked by repeated student violence, announced in November it would close after graduation of its present new intake in 1982.
In 1979 official figures show 4,288 students arrested for violence at school, but police say this is not an accurate indication, as many schools try to hide the problem as long as possible.
Japanese newspapers recently have been full of analysis of what has gone wrong.
Educators say one problem is lack of discipline at home and in the classroom. Postwar Japanese parents have been notoriously indulgent of their offspring.
This has backfired. The government white paper reported a survey of teen-agers that found 43 percent of boys and 51 percent of girls had no desire to grow up, but wished to remain as indulged children. Japanese young people, the report concluded, have become spoiled and fun-loving.
One problem is that after decades of hard work by its highly disciplined population, Japan has entered what is being hailed as a "leisure era," when the public will relax and enjoy the hedonistic benefits of past toil. The current generation of youngsters has known no other life. But it is only materialistic needs that are being met.
There is no real religion in a Western sense that could be used to channel young lives in the right direction. In the early 1970s former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka tried to revive moral education as part of the schoo curriculum, but he was howled down by the left-wing teachers' union, which claimed his action smacked of the mind-control precepts that dominated Japanese education before World War II.
Some Japanese, seeking to put the problem into better perspective, point out that this country does not have as many problems in its classrooms as many Western nations (for example, the United States, with its drug problem).