How Japan Reforms Its Violent Kids

Crimes Double

Michinobu Yamaguchi is marooned.

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.

"It's a symbol of strength," says Taichi Ishikawa, a private-school student in Tokyo. "Having a knife means being strong and cool."

The crime wave has even seeped into the language, as kids coin their own words to describe it. In their slang the verb kireru, to cut, has taken on a disturbing nuance: Kids who are kirete iru are in a rage and no longer responsible for their actions, however violent.

While adults grope for language of their own to explain what's happening, two predictable camps say the answer can be found in reforming the education system.

Innovators like Junzo Kanazawa, who works with students who refuse to attend classes, say there are too many rules.

"Schools need more freedom, more free space, more free time," he says.

Traditionalists at the Ministry of Education argue the children need more structure. "Students lack basic morals and ethics," says spokesman Takuho Senzaki.

TV violence or cultural malaise?

The Education Ministry is among those blaming the media. Prime-time TV often features extended rape or fight scenes, and the knife fad is thought to spring from a popular drama in which the hero carried one.

But a growing number of people are urging a more multilayered look at causes. Tatsuo Inamasu echoes fellow sociologist Mr. Maniwa when he says the roots lie in a national malaise.

Japan's economy has faltered, its bureaucrats and politicians are being arrested for corruption, the extended family is unraveling. Japan has achieved the goal of postwar resurrection and in the process, lost its bearings, he says.

"Kids are all materially satisfied, but they have no dreams," says Professor Inamasu. "When I was a kid there was always an enemy or a goal to strive for. These kids don't know what to search for, and traditional norms have all shattered."

In his own quiet way, Michinobu reflects Inamasu's argument. He says he has no goals or ambitions, though the nurturing he's getting at Musashino's leafy compound is awakening his interest in art and tennis.

Musashino teachers say they see family breakups like his often.

Creating a new family

"There are so many cases of divorce, step-parents, or abuse," says counselor Miho Torobu. "Often, the root of the problem is the family. That traditional structure is no longer there."

The school tries to address this by organizing its 41 students (all government subsidized at a cost of $40,000 a year) into family-like groups of 10.

Thirty six of the school's 42 teachers live on site, and the atmosphere is open. Curriculum is loosely structured; there are gardens, tennis courts, and a pool, but no high fences.

"If you don't have a strong bond between teachers and students, it doesn't matter how high the wall is," says Ms. Torobu. "They'll get out."

Kuniko Ohtsuru, who runs Michinobu's dorm with her husband, Kenji, gives the boys cleaning and cooking chores. A yard full of animals - geese, chickens, friendly dogs - helps teach responsibility and caring.

Sitting at the dorm's long dinner table with a protective Mr. Ohtsuru, Michinobu says coming here was hard but it's paying off.

"Before, I had so many problems and stress, I couldn't communicate and had to release them in violence." he says. "Since coming here, I've learned to talk."

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