One day recently, Takashi Ozawa, a sixth-grader with a passion for soccer, arrived home in this bedroom community an hour from Tokyo with a question for his mother. What had she done when she had been a teacher, and a student forgot his book?
In the course of their talk, the issue behind the question came out. To discipline Takashi and four others who had forgotten their texts, their teacher called them to the front of the class and struck them.
"I got very agitated," remembers Kyoko Ozawa, who demanded and got apologies from the teacher and school principal. "I try to have a lot of communication with my kids. When Takashi told me about this, I said 'You don't have to put yourself in a position where he can do that.' "
Japan's Ministry of Education would probably approve of Mrs. Ozawa's actions. Parents taking more responsibility for the behavior of their children, even challenging teachers, is central to a new ministry campaign.
Faced with rising youth crime, truancy, and delinquency, the ministry is trying to teach adults a thing or two about parenting. A report called "Let's Talk to Our Children" offers advice on everything from play time to family holidays (see box below). But the report is controversial, helping to fuel a national discussion about the role of families today.
The price of economic success?
The report questions the fundamental tenets of modern Japanese society. It intimates that the current formula for economic success - men work long hours while women raise children, fitting-in taking precedence over challenging the norm, and study before play (even to the exclusion of play) - is fostering imbalances within the family. Absentee fathers, child-rearing with the sole focus on future careers, and abdication of parental responsibility to educational institutions are producing unprecedented social ills among youths here.
The ministry's report is subtitled "a crisis of confidence in raising the next generation," a widely held sentiment. Newspaper articles ask, "What has happened to Japanese families?" This year's winner in a national high school speech contest argued that parents no longer fulfill their traditional roles.
"The family is the most fundamental unit of the society where we all learn its basic rules and also how to love others," said Tatekimi Matsuzaki of Kasukabe Kyoei High last month.
He said mothers aren't providing proper love and fathers aren't teaching discipline. "When my father started coming home late, we couldn't spend so much time together.... I began to turn into a spoiled brat.... My father was something like the foundation of morals and justice. So, when he began to be absent from the house, our house was like a society without any law enforcement. Thus, discipline taught by fathers is necessary for children to know the rules of the society we live in, and with that we learn how to get along with others."
Even the entertainment industry has chimed in. Takeshi Kitano, a popular creator of violent, nihilistic films, offered this advice in an article: "Nothing is more irresponsible than telling kids, 'You're free. Do what you want,' " he wrote. "If we set limits and tell them how they have to go about things, they find out how to enjoy themselves within those limits."
In the last few years, Japanese kids have been testing limits as never before. Reports of teen violence, crime, and rising drug use have dominated the media, and a series of school killings have shocked the nation.
While the numbers are tiny compared to the US, they have profoundly unsettled Japan, which has long thought of itself as a safe and stable country.
In the hunt for the roots of this juvenile instability, the magnifying glass is now poised over parents.
The Central Council for Education, meeting to discuss curriculum revisions last year, decided solutions lie, at least partially, at home. "We want to teach kids respect for life, independence, and integrity," says Yoshiko Takahashi, who heads the School Management Research Department within the Tokyo Board of Education. "We decided it can't just be done in schools, it had to include families. Parents have great responsibility for teaching kids character."
This might sound self-evident to North American or European ears, but children here spend an enormous amount of time in school or educational settings.
Takashi Ozawa, for instance, comes home from school at 3 p.m., studies, eats, then heads to a cram school from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. On Mondays, he squeezes in an English class.
It takes a village
Moreover, Japanese see a child's development as a community responsibility, and to ask if the ministry's report interferes in private lives is to draw blank looks. "Schools and parents are responsible for raising children," says Akiko Haga, of the Tokyo Board of Education, who describes this attitude as a part of Japan's collective "village mentality."
Ms. Haga attributes many of the current problems to Japan's rapid postwar modernization and its erosion of the village mentality. Rebuilding Japan meant men worked long hours, leaving women to raise children virtually on their own.
Where family homes once housed several generations, nuclear families became the norm. The ministry guidelines, Haga says, are an attempt to recreate old family values. They recommend, among other things, more family chats; less dependence between mothers and their children, and more parenting by fathers.
Another suggestion is to give children household chores. Often, children are not expected to set the table or do any work around the house because mothers want to keep them free to study.
Critics call the guidelines a flight of fancy. "I want the education ministry and the government to face reality," says Tokyo psychologist Naoko Misawa, who has worked extensively with young children. She says families have degenerated to the point where they can't function properly. "Japan succeeded in raising good corporate warriors, but failed in raising family men. It's a problem with this country."
Indeed, the ministry's report does seem to run counter to the accepted order of things in Japan today, where individuality is frowned upon, where the school entrance exams require minimum play and maximum study, and where fathers are often absent.
Certainly this has been the Ozawas' experience. Like many fathers, Takashi's dad has been posted to another province and is home only on weekends. Because the Ozawas want Takashi to do well, father-son time is devoted to math and science review. Soccer comes second.
"Japanese husbands think training and education are a mother's job," explains Ozawa, as she and Takashi enjoy a post-school, pre-cram-school piece of cake at their dining room table. "They're always busy working hard and think it's important for their family to do that."
She doesn't resent the ministry's attempt to tell her how to raise her child, but says its recommendations are misguided. "It's unrealistic because the core problem won't change - society and the way it's structured," she says. "It may happen over 10 to 20 years, but they'd have to get rid of entrance exams first."
But the authors of the guidelines stand by their work. "Some people may call it unrealistic," says Ms. Takahashi, "but we can't change anything that way." The report signals what the ideal is. "This gives parents a great opportunity to ask, 'What are the basics?' "
A GOVERNMENT'S GUIDE FOR PARENTING
The Japanese Ministry of Education's answer to a rash of youth crimes: better parenting. In a recently released report, the ministry outlined how parents could improve their child-rearing.
* Encourage kids' goals and dreams.
* Have more family talks.
* Plan family activities.
* Don't meddle too much in your kids' business.
* Fathers should spend more time with their children.
* Teach children responsibility by giving them chores.
* Read with your children.
* Expose kids to plants and pets to foster a respect for life.
* Limit what is watched on TV.
* Don't let children lock themselves in their rooms.
* Recognize that play is important.
* Praise your children.
* Provide kids with free time.
* Staff writer Yoshiko Matsushita contributed to this report