Japanese kids call for a sympathetic ear

The six-year old girl won't give her name. She says she is constantly bullied at school and hit by her mother at home. She says she is scared and doesn't know what to do.

A nine-year old boy says his friends tell him to disappear. His teacher just tells him wait and see. His mother says it's all his fault.

They are pleas for help from just two of the 1,069 children who called Japan's first 24-hour phone counseling hot line for children during a two-week trial in Tokyo this past year. The overwhelming response underscores the great need Japanese children have for someone to listen to them and discuss their problems, organizers say.

In calls lasting as long as two hours, children talked about bullying, abuse, academic pressure, and corporal punishment - subjects that are rarely dealt with head on here. The success of this trial has led to a government plan for child-counseling hot lines nationwide. Though some critics are skeptical about this plan, most agree that troubled children here badly need a place to turn.

"The situation is much worse than we think," says Teizo Muta, an actor who heads the Setagaya Volunteer Association, which set up the hot line.

While the 24-hour line dedicated to children is a new concept in Japan, telephone counseling has been around for some time. There are three major government-initiated counseling services available for adults today.

But there appears to be a need for a hot line exclusively for children. More than 40 percent of elementary school students recently polled by the government said that they didn't have anyone they could consult about their problems. When asked if they had ever sought help through public telephone counseling, less than 1 percent said yes.

Critics say children find the current services, operated by the police agency, and the education and health ministries, intimidating or untrustworthy. That wasn't the case with the hot line trial.

"They called us knowing we were there to listen to them," says Yayoi Hoshino, an executive chairman of the Setagaya ChildLine, drawing a comparison to the existing government hot lines. "If children knew that the former principals or policemen were on the other end, how could they be comfortable talking? The Setagaya line was a place to share, not a place to get advised, questioned, or scolded."

This counseling philosophy is based on that of the British ChildLine, a London-based private organization whose 24-hour hot line draws 10,000 calls a day. Setagaya volunteers flew to London to observe the British ChildLine and were impressed with the way counselors let children lead the conversations.

Inspired, they decide to create the private hot line service. "Because it was privately run, it gave much more flexibility to meet the changing needs of children," says Mr. Hosaka.

Now, nine months after the trial run, the project is about to go national. Influenced by Mr. Muta's experiment, the Ministry of Education asked the government last August, for an annual budget of just over $700,000 to establish 24-hour child-line centers in all 47 prefectures over the next three years. Local governments will be responsible for running the hot line.

"We take the result of the Setagaya case seriously," says Kazuyuki Yamanaka at the Youth Education Division. "And we hope this will serve as one of the ways to help and guide the children in the right direction."

While the overall plan looks good at first glance, people like Mr. Muta and his colleague, journalist-turned lawmaker Nobuto Hosaka have doubts about whether the Ministry-initiated counseling lines will meet the real needs of children. "The problem with the ministry is that they haven't addressed the core issue as to why such help line is necessary," says Hosaka. "Throwing money at the problem without a concrete purpose or plan is useless."

The needs of Japan's children are a major source of concern these days. Truancy and juvenile crime have been climbing rapidly. A government white paper recently noted that the teenage lawlessness increased by 10 percent in 1997 and made up more than 50 percent of all crimes in Japan.

Children are feeling stressed as well. This year, the Ministry of Education found that nearly 80 percent of those students polled are "sometimes frustrated," while 20 percent felt "frustrated or irritated on a daily basis" or had a "general feeling of insecurity."

The academic pressure to succeed in the all-important college entrance exams is one source of anxiety. One 10-year-old caller to the hot line told her counselor she was having trouble with her weekly schedule, which was so full she had to eat a boxed-lunch dinner in the car everyday while her mother ferried her to the next lesson.

"I go to school every day and to after-school cram classes four times a week," the little voice says. "I also have piano lessons three times a week and have to take a [cram school] exam every Sunday. My parents are supportive, but I'm a bit tired. I feel so sleepy."

Families, too, are under strain. Economic demands have created "absent" fathers who work such long hours their children seldom see them. Without the role models and advisers they need, children "are oppressed and lost, and to release their stress that they do everything from bullying to acting violently," says Naoko Misawa, a Tokyo-based psychologist.

Hosaka, the lawmaker, thinks that telephone counseling, whether it's government or private, can help parents and children.

"If we fail to create an environment for children to freely speak about their problems they will only become more isolated," he warns. "We have to act before it's too late."

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