A Japanese solution for truancy

By refusing to go to school for seven months at the age of 12, Kazuyoshi Tomii unwittingly helped launch a whole new concept in dealing with problem children.

Kazuyoshi had just entered junior high school when an illness kept him home for two weeks. His teacher, however, believed the illness was simply an excuse to dodge classes.

Incensed at the injustice of the accusation, the boy rebelled, refusing to go back to school at all. At their wits' end after seven months of truancy, his parents sent Kazuyoshi to the tiny village of Hirayamura, where the schooling he got received national attention and provoked a flood of responses from parents and others.

Situated 220 meters (650 feet) above sea level in the heart of Japan's central mountains, Hirayamura is a bleak spot in winter, where icy winds howl around flimsy wooden structures and snow piles up for weeks on end. The migration of villagers to an easier life in the cities has become severe there. The population has dropped from a high of 1,500 to about 600 at present. To eke out a precarious living, the community, whose basic vocation is farming, also takes on part-time work making auto parts and textiles.

Hardest hit by the declining population was the village school, which served elementary and junior high students. With only two pupils remaining, it was on the verge of closure three years ago, when village elders decided to launch a ''volunteer foster parent'' system to help ''unhappy children.''

Kazuyoshi Tomii was the first to be helped. He went to live with the headmaster, Masataka Ueda, and quickly responded to kindness and encouragement to catch up on the lost seven months of schoolwork.

When a television network showed a documentary about the boy, Hirayamura was swamped with requests from parents all over Japan to accept their children.

Fifteen eventually arrived in the tiny village - all from the big cities and all with a history of violence and other forms of juvenile delinquency.

The roughest, toughest of all was Kazuto Iguchi. He'd been raised from an early age solely by his mother after the father abandoned the family. With the mother forced to work, Kazuto became a ''latchkey child.'' He got into bad company, smoked, inhaled paint thinner, drank alchol to excess, and almost died. He was prone to violence and had attacked his mother and others.

While Kazuyoshi was becoming school head boy, Kazuto was leading a gang of delinquents who made life difficult for both the school and the village at large. Villagers were astonished - they had seen such things on television but never thought a ''blackboard jungle'' would come to peaceful Hirayamura. Doubts began to surface over whether the foster-parent plan could be allowed to continue in the face of such violent behavior.

For a while, Kazuto was put into isolation in the school to try to cool him down. Mr. Ueda recalls that it was a long, difficult process, in which ''faith and hope'' played equally large parts. It took more than a year before the youngster finally changed and began to help the villagers in the fields or felling timber in nearby forests. But when he returned during the holidays to his mother's cramped apartment in a decaying complex near Yokohama, the old Kazuto returned with a vengeance.

Why the difference? Kazuto recalled bitterly how his mother repeatedly told him she wished she had abandoned him in the street at an early age rather than put up with the heavy burden of raising him. ''Well, I didn't ask her to raise me. But it's too late to talk about those things,'' he said.

When he was small, said Kazuto, his mother often beat him. But when he grew bigger and stronger than she, ''I got violent. Then I could see that she was frightened of me, just as I'd been frightened of her before. After that I could no longer stand the sight of her.''

Once, the boy went to see his father, who gave him money and told him: ''Never come and see me again.'' He despises his father for being weak and vows that he will be a strong, independent man, in stark contrast. Kazuto has no feelings now for his mother and wants nothing to do with her. He makes no allowance for her bitterness at being abandoned and the hard life she leads.

''People look at her and think she is nice and kind, and ask me why I don't take care of her. They only see the surface. But I know her better. I don't want to be a person who treats his mother badly. Inside I try to be nice, but I can't help becoming violent. People who try and give me advice don't understand. . . . They come from happy families.''

Kazuyoshi Tomii and Kazuto Iguchi, despite all their past problems, graduated from Hirayamura Junior High School, proudly stepping up to the dais to receive their certificates from the headmaster. Later, they were greeted with loud applause as they stepped into the school office to thank the assembled staff for persevering with them. Said Kasuyoshi: ''I am happy that I could meet people who could respect me here.''

He studied hard to pass the entrance examination of a good high school in Tokyo and returned to his family home - not without some anxiety at how he would be able to resume the relationship with his own family, from whom he had been parted for so long.

Kazuto wavered for some time between getting a job and continuing his education. Rather than return home, he decided to stay in the mountains, passing the entrance examination for a high school in a town close to Hirayamura. He has stopped smoking, drinking, and sniffing thinner.

At this stage - at the age of 16 - there is no guarantee that Kazuyoshi and Kazuto are firmly back on the right track. But the people of Hirayamura are hopeful.

Said Mr. Ueda: ''It was hard importing violent delinquents into a small, tranquil rural community that didn't know how to cope. We had to bear a lot of pain. But in the final analysis we can feel that there is some reason for Hirayamura to continue existing. . . . I think we will continue the work if the need is there.''

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