A controversial sink-or-swim tack toward Japan's troubled youths

Every morning at 9 a.m., Hiroshi Totsuka sends his students into the silvery blue Pacific to fight for their lives. This experience, he says, is just what they need.

Mr. Totsuka is not a social worker or psychologist, he's a professional sailor. His supporters say the Totsuka Yacht School has saved hundreds of children from delinquency, depression, and even disease.

Totsuka says his approach - beatings, forced encounters with danger, and military-like discipline - works because it makes Japan's wayward youths aware of their proper place in society.

When five of his students died in the 1980s, prosecutors disagreed.

Courts convicted him on a range of charges in two of the deaths, the result of harsh beatings and confinement. Totsuka spent three years behind bars and is appealing a second jail sentence.

"I feel some hatred for Mr. Totsuka, for what he did to my son's life," says Toru Mizutani, whose son Shin was lost at sea. "My son will never come back."

The deaths made Totsuka a pariah, but he has been rebuilding his school over the past decade. Today the number of applications is growing and he is turning people away.

He has the backing of company presidents and the ear of people nationwide who attend his seminars. In interviews, parents, sociologists, educators, and a psychologist were all reluctant to criticize him. Last month Beat Takeshi, a popular director and TV personality, suggested in a major magazine that Totsuka schools be opened across the country.

It is a puzzling comeback.

How a man convicted in the deaths of two young boys, a man without educational, religious, or counseling credentials, can become a sought-after adviser says as much about the uneasy state of Japan today as it does about the man himself.

As the 1990s wind down, an entrenched recession is eroding social and economic stability. Critics and working people alike complain that the country has lost its sense of purpose. Japan's children have become a disturbing symbol of this malaise. Increasingly violent and adrift, they are, one teacher says, "wild at heart."

To families looking for answers, Totsuka hawks a philosophy of strong patriarchy and traditional values that evokes the imagined purity of Japan's past - a vision of unity and discipline that has potent appeal for many Japanese.

He reinforces his words with action, using training methods that echo old military and religious practices. In counterpoint, he decries the Western concept of human rights, which he says has left parents reluctant to physically discipline their children.

Backlash against Western standards

In some ways, his argument is a cultural version of the economic debate in parts of Asia now - whether Western standards are appropriate, and whether they should be cast out in part or in full. Totsuka discusses these issues in three to four seminars a month, with groups of 10 to 20, and in a newsletter to 3,000 subscribers.

"It's always stimulating to hear him talk," says Hideaki Yano, a Tokyo book editor who regularly attends the seminars, which cost up to $90. "He encourages us to develop inner strength."

Corporate boosters provide funding. One security firm has given $90,000 since 1986. His most vocal supporter is the popular nationalist intellectual Shintaro Ishihara, who compares Totsuka to Copernicus, the scientist persecuted for saying the earth revolved around the sun.

Totsuka's comeback indicates one inward, authoritarian turn Japan could take in the future. "It's just a question of whether Totsuka can ride the trend of where Japan is going right now," says Tsunekazu Takeuchi, an education professor at Tokyo's Kokugakuin University. "Japan could turn back to the past."

Totsuka opened his school in 1977 after victory in a transpacific sailing race made him a national hero. One of the first students was a high school dropout who quickly decided he'd rather return to his studies. His delighted parents spread the word: Totsuka had a way with difficult kids.

Totsuka closed the school after his 1982 convictions, then reopened in 1986. Until his appeal of the second conviction is over, he can do as he pleases as long as he breaks no laws.

Today the school is a worn, mildewed building just off the beach in Kowa, a small town on Japan's south-central coast.

It's crammed with books and gear and smells faintly of kerosene from the heaters. Totsuka is in the den fiddling with a video. He is a tiny bull of a man, whose thick arms and barrel chest make him seem larger. He smiles constantly and exudes a hearty charisma.

Applications have risen in the last two years, says Tateyuki Yokota, Totsuka's aide. Last year the school got more than 10 inquiries a month.

In the 1980s, Totsuka had about 100 students, but he's restricting enrollment to 10 places until his appeal is over. Today, five students are here, four boys and a girl. The other five have run away.

One boy arrived yesterday from northern Japan, brought by his father because he'd dropped out and started stealing. Like all new students, he was videotaped on arrival so that Totsuka can do "before" and "after" comparisons.

"I watched 'The Ten Commandments' with Charlton Heston the other day," Totsuka says, as he presses "play." "At one point, Moses says you need rules to enjoy freedom. I believe that."

A skinny kid appears on the screen. His long hair is fashionably auburn, his dye job a trendy symbol of individuality. "That hairstyle was the only way he could be different," Totsuka mutters.

Next we see the boy in close-up. His hair has been shorn to black stubble and his face is blank. "He's not stupid," Totsuka says. "But we have to develop his will. Through physical training, we build their muscles and their will."

The word "will," or ishi, has great significance for Totsuka. By "will" he means self-discipline, restraint, perseverance, and a proper sense of your place, all classic Japanese values.

Only by developing will, or adhering to these Japanese rules, can people enjoy freedom, Totsuka says. Japan's ability to mobilize its collective will is the one thing that sets it apart from other nations. "As individuals we may never be better than Westerners. But when we work together, the outcome is different."

Saving the country by strengthening will

But will is in short supply as Japan abandons older ways, he says. "This [loss] will destroy Japan."

That belief fuels his mission to develop will, and thereby save the country. Central to this goal is his "theory of the brain stem."

Totsuka contends that will, or mental strength, is located in a specific part of the brain and can be built up just like a muscle, but only through "the release of hormones driven by fear or extreme situations." So fear and extreme situations are what he provides.

Totsuka's new student is barely into his teens, so he can't be named in this story. But he'd like us to call him Clint Eastwood. He knows why he's here. "It's very important for my dad that I turn out OK," he says.

His father, Minoru Watanabe, paid a $25,000 fee and will pay $870 a month during his son's stay. He's aware of Totsuka's history. "It's a risk, but it's the only choice I had," Mr. Watanabe says. "[My son] was stealing. I just didn't know what to do."

Mr. Mizutani recognizes that sense of desperation. His son had dropped out of school and withdrawn into silence when Mizutani enrolled him at Totsuka's. A few weeks after their arrival, Shin and another boy jumped off a boat and disappeared. The court later determined that they were trying to escape punishment by the coaches.

"If Mr. Totsuka is still doing the same thing, or believes in the same theories, I would tell parents who are interested in him today, 'Don't put your child in his school; his methods are crazy,' " Mizutani says. "Violence never works."

But parents such as Watanabe feel they have few options. "There is hardly any place for troubled kids like my son," he says. At the same time, delinquency is increasing. Juvenile crime has climbed steadily since 1996, and youth violence is now a national fixation.

Many observers attribute this trend to failures in the family and education system. "The family has become spiritually empty," says sociologist Daisaburo Hashizume of the Tokyo Institute of Technology. "Teachers are too busy to help kids."

Critics cite a postwar economic system that pushes men to work ceaselessly, leaving women to raise children alone. Clint Eastwood's father is one of many who lives away from home because of work.

Professor Hashizume says these practices leave children without strong role models to teach society's basic rules. "Fathers are lacking, and mothers don't know how. The socialization process has been seriously damaged."

The sense of national dislocation is most clearly seen in the "crisis literature" boom. Best-selling titles like "Japan's Failure" dwell on perceived flaws like a Japanese inability to think logically. "The feeling that we've lost our direction prevails right now," admits Hashizume. In this climate, Totsuka's emphasis on older values and his stance as a father figure in a fatherless society have great appeal. "His methods are dangerous," Hashizume says, "but if there is no better way than his, nobody is qualified to blame him."

Do-it-yourself windsurfing lessons

Clint Eastwood wants to go home. He couldn't do all the sit-ups this morning, so one of the coaches hit him in the stomach. "I want to see my mom," he mumbles.

It will be a while before any homecoming. Totsuka has eased the intensity of his training because "the authorities are watching," so students now stay for up to a year, instead of three months. Morning roll call is at 7 a.m., followed by an hour of exercises routinely enforced by corporal punishment. (Japan's education ministry forbids corporal punishment, but Totsuka's school is legally a business.) The rest of the day is devoted to windsurfing, chores, and meals. Lights go out at 10 p.m.

There is no counseling and little instruction. On Clint's second day, one of the two coaches takes him out into open water. He stops the flat-bottomed boat, tells the boy to jump overboard, and slips a windsurfer into the water. The boat surges away, leaving the boy in its choppy wake scrambling to mount the board. He has not windsurfed before and has no life jacket. In aiming to release "hormones driven by fear," Totsuka is also recreating a central moment in his own life.

He and a friend were sailing one evening in 1972 when a typhoon capsized their boat. While they fought to stay afloat through the night, Totsuka had his epiphany about the crucial importance of will. "The humanists tell us we must try to save our fellow man," he writes in one of his books, "but all I thought was that I wanted to survive. [My friend] would have to go on living on his own strength or nothing at all."

Echo of ancient Zen practices

Totsuka has gone to great lengths to develop his students' will to persevere. Before his convictions, new arrivals slept in small cages. Students were beaten harder and more regularly. Training on the water was more difficult as well. Custom-made boats were designed to capsize easily.

His methods are meant to echo ancient Zen practices in which priests, samurai warriors, and even athletes used physical endurance and steely self-discipline to purify the spirit.

Priests would meditate under an icy waterfall; fencers would stand for hours on a tall platform just the size of their feet. The point was to strip all unnecessary consciousness between thought and action, be it in praying or parrying.

"Whether it's getting hit, running up mountains barefoot, or sitting under cold waterfalls for hours, these exercises strengthen the part of the brain [where will resides]," says Yokota, Totsuka's aide.

Some students don't respond well. In 1979, a badly bruised 13-year-old died of a stomach injury. In 1980, a 21-year-old died after repeated beatings, as did a 13-year-old in 1982, the same year Shin and another student were lost at sea.

There is little remorse here for these boys today. Yokota smiles ruefully as he explains that Totsuka is the victim of media and judicial bias. He says the first two boys died of illness, and the third died because of hospital malpractice - he was fine when they brought him in.

On the contrary, claims Yokota, his boss's methods have resulted in other boys being healed from illnesses ranging from autism to schizophrenia. Totsuka won't answer questions about the boys who died, but he does address the subject in one of his books. He asks whether his entire philosophy is wrong just because a few weren't strong enough to save themselves. When you press the point, his smile slips. When it does, what you see on his weathered face isn't cruelty but despair. Then the smile is back in place, and he offers his hand in farewell. "In the long run," he says, "you'll see I'm right."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A controversial sink-or-swim tack toward Japan's troubled youths
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today