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ARTICLE: Juvenile Crime - The Current Situation


Unswerving cyclist
14 Mar 2002
This article by Jun'ichi Seto dating from 1998 certainly isn't one of the most recent, but it describes the path to the new legislation very well.

Juvenile Crime - The Current Situation

A Chain of Brutal Attacks by Junior High School Students

The Japanese school year starts in April. Because of the specter of youth crimes and the attendant repercussions for education in Japan, the 1997 school year (April 1997 to March 1998) was regrettably a memorable one.

In June 1997 a 14-year-old third-year junior high school boy was arrested on suspicion of murdering two elementary school children in Kobe and assaulting others. In January 1998 a 13-year-old first-year student at a junior high school in the city of Kuroiso in Tochigi Prefecture, apparently enraged at having been reprimanded during a break be-tween classes, took out his "butterfly" clasp knife and stabbed a female teacher to death. Another shocking incident followed barely two months later, in March, at a junior high school in the city of Higashi-Matsuyama in Saitama Prefecture. Once again a 13-year-old first-year junior high school student lashed out with a knife, this time appar-ently in response to harassment by some of his male classmates, one of whom died.

In addition to these widely publicized mur ders, a host of other crimes committed by junior high school students (generally aged 12 to 15), particularly offenses involving the use of knives, have occurred in rapid succession all over Japan. (The major incidents in the first three months of this year alone are related in the accompanying table.) One outstanding characteristic of many of these crimes is that they were reportedly com-mitted by "normal" children with no history of delinquency who suddenly "sickened" or "went berserk," leading to grave acts of violence.

Juvenile crime in Japan is characterized by the relatively young age of most of those involved. Of all juveniles (defined in Japan as people under the age of 20) charged with violating the Penal Code, 16-year-olds account for the largest single age group, followed by 15-year-olds and 14-year-olds. Together, these three groups make up two-thirds of all juvenile violators in Japan.

Another conspicuous feature of juvenile crime in Japan, and one that is related to the extreme youth of so many juvenile offenders, is its close connection to education and school life. Japan's national system of compulsory education covers the nine years of schooling culminating in graduation from junior high school, and 97% of junior high school graduates go on to attend senior high school as well. The vast majority of the nation's juvenile violators--85%--are enrolled in schools. Senior high school students predominate, comprising 45.5% of this group, but junior high students, at 27.5%, also account for a surprisingly high portion.

What all this suggests is that juvenile crime is a major element within the overall issue of education. Schooling occupies an overwhelming portion of the average child's time and attention in Japan, and the importance of school generally takes precedence over family and social activities. Absences tend to be regarded as cause for alarm, and to the traditionally minded it would be unthinkable to allow a child to miss school in order to go along on a family trip, for instance, or for any other purely personal reason. It is true that this situation has to some extent been undergoing a reevaluation lately, but traditional attitudes that view schools as omnipotent and confer sacred status upon the educational process are apparently deeply rooted in society. Consequently, in addition to penal measures and steps to ensure the proper custody and rehabilitation of youthful offenders, the measures taken to deal with juvenile crime should also place a comparatively heavy emphasis on educational reforms.

Last year's gruesome events in Kobe had an especially shocking impact on those involved in education. The details reveal a crime of extreme cruelty: A third-year junior high student murdered an 11-year-old sixth-grader with whom he was acquainted and decapitated the body, depositing the severed head at the front gate of his own school, with a note stuffed inside the mouth signed with the pseudonym "Seito Sakakibara." Further-more, he sent a statement acknowledging his crime to a local newspaper, in which he likened the victim to a "rotten vegetable" and stated that he intended to take his revenge on "compulsory education, which produced me as a transparent existence, and the society that created it."

In the aftermath of the incident, the Ministry of Education immediately requested that the Central Council for Education, an advisory body to the minister of education, undertake an urgent inquiry on appropriate ways to provide "moral education starting at infancy." Since then, advice has also been sought from other deliberative scholarly groups on how best to respond to the situation.

One effect of all this has been to stimulate discussion of relevant penal measures and the custody and rehabilitation of juvenile violators. Specifically, urgent attention has been concentrated on the task of reforming sections of Japan's Juvenile Law, which applies to underage violators.

Whatever approach one takes, the increasingly serious nature of crimes by juveniles can be viewed as symbolic evidence of the fact that the education system and social systems that have been in place in Japan for half a century since World War II have ceased to be relevant. Japanese society has once again entered a major period of transition. In the following pages I would like to consider the phenomenon of juvenile crime and examine the government's response to the problem in the light of two different approaches: efforts to accomplish educational reforms and arguments for the revision of the Juvenile Law.

Major Incidents Involving Junior High School Students (Jan.-Mar. 1998):

  • January 28
    Kuroiso-Kita Junior High School, Tochigi Prefecture: A 26-year-old female English teacher was stabbed to death by a 13-year-old boy wielding a "butterfly" clasp knife. The boy, a first-year student, apparently acted out of rage at having been reprimanded for leaving the classroom and coming back late. The incident had a shocking effect on the public, and in its aftermath teenage slang terms for "sicken" and "going berserk" were suddenly in the limelight.
  • February 2
    Koto Ward, Tokyo: A police officer on street patrol was attacked by a 15-year-old third-year junior high school student brandishing a "butterfly" clasp knife, who stabbed the officer in the chest in an attempt to steal his pistol. Although the officer was wounded, he managed to subdue the boy, who was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder and robbery. The attack appeared to be a compulsive act by a youth who had gone berserk and lost the capacity to distinguish fantasy from reality--he reportedly said he had acted out of an overpowering desire to get his hands on a real gun.

  • February 3
    Minister of Education Nobutaka Machimura announced that school principals were free to decide whether or not to search students' belongings. Various local bodies began to consider issuing directives declaring so-called "butterfly" knives to be "harmful toys."

  • February 5
    Atsumi, Aichi Prefecture: A 15-year-old student at a junior high school took out an air gun during a class and shot the 30-year-old teacher in the face at point-blank range, causing serious injury. The boy reportedly said he attacked the teacher because one of his friends had been scolded and he was angry about it.
  • February 6
    The Ministry of Education convened an emergency meeting of officials and teachers responsible for the supervision of students in schools administered by big city and prefectural governments. Views expressed at the meeting included the suggestion that violence on television and in video games might be influencing the behavior of children.
  • February 9
    Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture: A 14-year-old junior high school boy stabbed a housewife who was passing by, seriously injuring her. When asked why, the boy reportedly said he thought that by creating trouble he would be able to get out of attending school.
  • February 17
    Urawa, Saitama Prefecture: A 69-year-old man living alone in a municipal apartment house died from injuries after being kicked and beaten by two junior high school girls, aged 14 and 15. The girls allegedly reported that they beat the man because he would not pay back the ツ・3,000 he had borrowed from them.
  • February 26
    Kobe: A 15-year-old third-year junior high school student wearing a hockey goalie's mask forced his way into a post office, threw down a knapsack in front of the female employee be- hind the counter, and flashed a kitchen knife. Admonished by the postmaster not to be so foolish, the boy backed down and was later arrested by the police on suspicion of attempted robbery. Asked about his motive, he reportedly stated he wanted to be able to leave the country or go somewhere far away; he knew there was money at the post office, and he thought it would be turned over to him if he showed a knife.
  • March 9
    Higashi-Matsuyama, Saitama Prefecture: In a junior high school classroom, a 13-year-old first-year student stabbed and killed a 13-year-old classmate with a jackknife. The incident was reportedly connected to bullying.
    Tomigusuku, Okinawa Prefecture: A 15-year-old junior high school boy called out a 13-year-old student and stabbed him in the chest with a kitchen knife, claiming the younger boy had a "bad attitude."
  • March 10
    Nagoya: In a junior high school classroom, a 14-year-old second-year student slashed a classmate seated in front of him with a kitchen knife, inflicting serious injuries, reportedly in revenge for something that had angered him the day before.
    The education minister, in an urgent appeal to the nation's school children, said: "Injuring another person, or worse, taking the life of another, will absolutely not be tolerated. Let us have no more carrying knives around. Please don't bring them to school anymore. I implore you to behave and look cheerfully ahead to the future that lies before you."
  • March 12
    Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture: Prefectural police arrested a 15-year-old junior high school girl for using stimulant drugs, which she had reportedly purchased several months before.
  • March 16
    Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture: Prefectural police announced they had arrested and were taking action against two 14-year-old junior high school girls for using stimulant drugs.
  • March 19
    Kyoto: A 13-year-old first-year junior high school boy used a box cutter to slash a teacher who was about to take some candy away from him, causing serious injuries.
  • March 20
    Narita, Chiba Prefecture: The body of a 14-year-old junior high school boy who hanged himself was found by his father in a shed at his home. A suicide note indicated he had been repeatedly hounded for money by a 17-year-old student, who was arrested on March 25 by Chiba prefectural police on suspicion of attempted blackmail, inflicting bodily harm, and extortion.
  • March 25
    Yotsukaido, Chiba Prefecture: A 14-year-old junior high school boy used a dumbbell to beat to death the 41-year-old father of a classmate. He reportedly claimed the victim had lately behaved coldly toward him. It later became apparent that the classmate had also taken part in the murder, and both were arrested.

Juvenile Crime: Facts and History

It seems appropriate, first of all, to look back over the history of juvenile crime in Japan. Let us consider the data for the postwar era, as presented in the 1997 edition of the Ministry of Justice's annual report on crime.

According to the analysis of the data presented in the report, three major waves of juvenile crime have occurred in Japan. The first wave peaked in 1951 (when records indicate 166,433 minors were charged with violations of criminal statutes), in the period immediately following World War II when Japanese society was in considerable upheaval, with economic turmoil and disruptions of family life contributing to the breakdown of social order. The crest of the second wave (when 238,830 juvenile violators were charged) coincided with the staging of the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964 during an era of high economic growth, an intense period of rapidly progressing industrialization and urbanization when the aging of Japan's postwar baby boom caused a marked increase in the percent age of the nation's population occupied by minors. The third wave peaked in 1983 (with 317,438 juveniles charged), in the midst of a period of relative economic prosperity, when societal values were diversifying following the diminishment of the traditional functions of family and community.

In 1983 juveniles arrested for crimes accounted for 1.7% of the juvenile population; this percentage represented an all-time high, as did the number of such arrests. Thereafter the falling birthrate came into play, and there was an overall decrease. In 1996, however, the number of juveniles arrested for criminal acts rose to 196,448, or 1.3% of the juvenile population; both figures represented increases over those for the previous year. It remains to be seen whether or not this change of direction will culminate in a fourth wave of juvenile crime, but some potentially contributing factors appear to be in place. With the collapse of its economic "bubble," Japan has been adrift both economically and politically for some time now, its horizons overcast with a sense of powerlessness. It would come as no surprise if this atmosphere did give way to a fourth juvenile crime wave; the National Police Agency refers to the present situation as "the approach of the fourth phase of ascendancy."
The numerical data on juvenile crimes of recent years reveal several distinctive features. One of these, as the National Police Agency has observed, is a marked increase in acts of violence and brutality. According to police officials, 2,263 juveniles were arrested in 1997 for crimes of brutality (murder, robbery, arson, or rape), an increase of 767, or 51.3%, over the figure for the previous year. There has been a particularly large rise in the incidence of robberies by juveniles, many of them apparently compulsive acts committed by gangs of youths. A new term currently in wide usage has been coined to describe some of these acts--oyaji-gari, which could be translated as "geezer hunting." This refers to vicious acts of robbery directed against middle-aged men, often inebriated and on their way home from work, committed by groups of youths. The perpetrators of these crimes generally turn out to be "ordinary" senior and junior high school students with no history of disciplinary problems.
In addition to the increase in crimes of brutality, there has also been a rise in the incidence of juveniles inflicting bodily injuries and threatening violence. Here again, a large number of these cases apparently involve otherwise "normal" senior and junior high school students. Police officials are reacting with alarm to what they see as a trend toward a new era of "crimes of the moment," in which students with essentially no history of problems suddenly turn to acts of brutality and violence. Indeed, the proportions of all crimes of brutality and crimes of violence committed by juveniles have risen to 34.1% and 44.5%, respectively. These figures approach the highest such percentages ever recorded.

A rise has also been seen in the use of stimulant drugs and other drugs by students in senior and junior high. A total of 1,596 juveniles were arrested for possession of stimulant drugs in 1997, an increase of 160 over the figure for the previous year. Of those arrested, 262 were senior or junior high school students, the highest such number ever recorded. Some of these arrests involved drug transactions conducted on school premises. Especially worrisome is the fact that young people seem to be putting up very little resistance to this influx of drugs. The widespread familiarity of such code words as esu ("S") and supido ("speed"), which are used to refer to stimulants, is itself evidence of the strength of the drug trend.
One more conspicuous feature of the current situation concerns crimes of a sexual nature. In 1997 the number of female juveniles who underwent counseling for deviant sexual conduct was 4,912, of whom some two-thirds were senior and junior high school students. Among the stated motivations of those involved, the most frequently cited were a "desire for money for leisure pursuits" and "interest or curiosity." Once again, the frequent use of a new term in the vernacular--enjo kosai ("compensated interaction," a euphemism for prostitution involving underage females)--underscores the extent to which this phenomenon is renowned throughout society. The attitude that allows so many girls to regard money accepted in return for sexual favors--prostitution--as a form of patronage has the effect of diminishing any guilty feeling over such behavior. Opinion surveys on the issue elicit large numbers of such responses as "It does no harm to anyone" and "I don't think it's wrong," which can only be regarded as reflections of the current social climate.

There is no ignoring the fact that it is adults who created the environment that has fostered this social climate. So-called telephone clubs (operated by adults), for instance, are widely known to be venues for prostitution and indecent acts; from 1990 to 1996 the number of such clubs in operation across Japan increased more than threefold--from 900 to 2,891. The reason is the growing presence of adults who make use of these operations and who are the patrons of teenage prostitutes.

Crimes of brutality committed by juveniles started attracting public attention over a decade ago. In one memorable incident, a group of 10 youths, including five junior high students, attacked and murdered two homeless men in Yokohama. In 1989 four boys abducted a high school girl in Tokyo and kept her confined for 41 days before killing her and concealing the body in concrete.

Recent years have witnessed what seems to be a further escalation of cruelty, giving rise to an inescapable sense of crisis. Cases of truly ruthless violence directed at the weak or helpless for seemingly trifle reasons have stood out. In these instances as well, like those involving teenage prostitutes possessed of a "desire for money for leisure pursuits" or "interest or curiosity," otherwise ordinary kids simply seem to be crossing the line into forbidden territory without the slightest hesitation. The mere desire for a pair of this year's sneakers or more fashionable clothes leads to a group mugging or prostitution, with scarcely any awareness that a crime is involved. It has also been pointed out that cruelty against animals has increased in recent years to levels approaching the grotesque, and this can probably be considered in the same context as criminal acts perpetrated on fellow human beings. Moreover, acts of the latter sort seem to generate "copycat" behavior, as typified by the recent rash of oyaji-gari incidents.

In light of the prevailing circumstances, the National Police Agency last year established a new approach to dealing with juvenile crimes, moving away from the more lenient line taken in the past toward a zero-tolerance, "tough love" policy of law enforcement for juveniles. While this new approach is not without its critics, there is no denying the desperate situation that has given rise to it.

Violence in Schools

One more important source of reference for an informed consideration of the problems involving Japan's youths is the latest edition of an annual report issued by the Education Ministry, entitled "The Current Status of Issues Affecting the Supervision of Students." Among other things, the report includes national statistics detailing the incidence of so-called bullying (ijime) and violence in Japan's schools. Its primary subjects are survey items addressing what the Education Ministry treats as categories of "problem behavior," including violence in schools, bullying, refusal to attend school, and physical punishment inflicted by teachers. Let us take a close look at the areas that are most closely related to juvenile crime--violence in schools and bullying.

The report released in December 1997 indicates that 10,575 individual incidents of violence in schools (including acts of violence against teachers or between students and acts resulting in damage to or destruction of school property) occurred during the 1996 school year, representing an increase of roughly 2,000 such incidents over the figure for the previous year and marking the first time since the survey was first conducted in 1982 that the annual total has ever surpassed 10,000.

The issue of school violence was addressed as a social problem in the first half of the 1980s, under the heading of "rough schools." In one celebrated incident of that era, a furor broke out after uniformed police were called to a junior high school in the city of Owase in Mie Prefecture to come to the "rescue" of a teacher who had been surrounded by students. Up until that point, students who behaved violently in schools had either been persuaded by their teachers to behave themselves or were restrained by them until they could be brought under control. Schools had generally tried to contain such problems and resolve them without outside assistance.
The Owase incident conveyed the strong impression that school violence had reached a level where it could no longer be dealt with in the customary manner, and it was followed in rapid succession by similar incidents in schools all over Japan. All at once students who were considered prone to violence were being sequestered in separate rooms during school graduation ceremonies, and amid all the many precautions being taken, it was not even unusual to find police officers on patrol inside certain schools. The atmosphere of tension was such that a junior high school teacher in the city of Machida in Tokyo Metropolis stabbed a student, reportedly out of fear of being attacked.

It was against this background of trouble in "rough schools" that the Education Ministry began its yearly investigations into violence in schools. The early surveys showed a gradual decline in the total number of violent incidents in schools from 1982 on, suggesting that overall violence was subsiding. Actually, however, the focus was merely shifting to the insidious problem of bullying, which was more difficult to detect from an outside perspective. School violence per se was obscured by the bullying issue and was consigned for a time to the farther edges of the public consciousness. In 1987, however, the number began to climb once again, and the arrival of the 1990s was accompanied by a steep surge upward. Before long, over 10,000 violent acts had occurred in Japan's schools within a single year.

Of the 10,575 acts of violence in the 1996 school year, 8,169 occurred in junior high schools and 2,406 in senior high schools. The junior high schools where such incidents took place account for 17.7% of all junior high schools in Japan, while the senior high schools that were sites of the violent acts recorded represent 22.0% of all the nation's senior high schools; both sets of figures surpassed by large margins the figures for the previous year, which had previously been the highest ever recorded.

As things stand, violence against teachers, acts of violence committed by one student against another, and destructive acts directed against school property are all increasing. The most prevalent by far are assaults on property, but the truly eye-catching statistic is that acts of violence directed against junior high school teachers increased by 48% over the previous year's total, to 1,316. Still more alarming are the views held by the teachers working in schools where all this is happening, many of whom see a remarkable absence of any sense of guilt among their violent charges and widespread impulsive behavior as characteristics of the violence in schools in recent years. The very same thing could be said of many of today's juvenile offenders. The changes taking place are not only quantitative but qualitative, too. In this sense, the fatal stabbing of the female teacher in Tochigi can be viewed as merely a horrifying extension of an ongoing trend.

Of the students committing acts of violence in schools, 14.6% of the junior high school students and 4.4% of the senior high school students involved were turned over to the police or sent to juvenile correctional institutions. The figures in these categories have actually been decreasing from year to year--the comparable figures for the 1989 school year were 35.7% for junior high students and 6.2% for senior high school students. There are several possible explanations for this, including the preponderance of property-directed acts among the violent acts in schools these days and the possibility that the ostensible abatement of school violence in the 1980s gave rise to renewed determination to handle such problems without outside intervention. It may also be that more of the violence occurring in the 1980s was of a serious nature compared with that occurring in the 1990s, at least until recently. Judging from the developments of the last one or two years, however, the situation would appear to be going beyond what took place in the 1980s, or perhaps it has already done so. Violence in schools has already manifested itself to a certain extent in elementary schools as well. Here is depressing evidence of a qualitative change: The Education Ministry has decided to include elementary schools in its annual investigation of school violence, beginning with the 1998 school year.


The other major area to be addressed is that of bullying. The Education Ministry's annual report cited a total of 51,544 cases of bullying during the 1996 school year. While this figure represented a decrease of 8,000 from the previous year's total, the ministry nevertheless commented that the situation "remains a cause for concern."

The type of behavior that manifests itself as bullying in schools has been around since ancient times and has probably been seen in virtually every society at one time or another. Even so, the bullying that has been taking place in contemporary Japan seems to show signs of undergoing the same sort of qualitative changes that are evident in school violence in general.

It was around 1985 that the term ijime first became a household word in Japan, as bullying began to be regarded as a serious social problem. In February 1986 a second-year junior high school student in Tokyo's Nakano Ward took his own life after suffering bullying and harassment that included the staging of his own mock funeral. In all, over 150,000 cases of bullying were recorded during the 1985 school year. As school violence per se decreased to some extent, it would seem that bullying moved in with a vengeance to fill the gap.
In statistical terms, at least, bullying also appears to have subsided for a while after the initial outcry in the mid 1980s. Some figures related to the number of bullying cases recorded were placed in a special category, "facts confirmed by the school." Due to the use of this framing device, some teachers and schools feared that doubts might be cast on their supervisory capabilities, and for these and other reasons it appears that at least some cases of bullying were deliberately left unreported. Furthermore, as the focus of public concern gradually shifted away from bullying, less emphasis was placed on this area in the Education Ministry's annual survey.
Whatever the reason, the total number of cases of bullying recorded annually started to level off in the 20,000 to 30,000 range during the 1988 school year. It stayed there until 1994, when there was suddenly a whole string of suicides by students who had been victims of bullying. One especially shocking bullying incident culminated in the suicide of a second-year junior high school student in the city of Nishio in Aichi Prefecture. According to the note he composed before taking his own life, the boy's life had been rendered unbearable by a group of classmates who had extorted over ツ・1 million from him through threats and intimidation.

Undoubtedly, even before the pathetic incident in Aichi, many children had killed themselves in despair over bullying, but their deaths were often cloaked in obscurity, the causes not necessarily clearly established. The tendency was to regard bullying as if it were merely a naughty game, rather than the cause of death of a child--an expediency that enabled the tormentors, their parents, and the schools as well, often enough, to evade all responsibility.

The Aichi case, however, brought home the fact that bullying had escalated to the level of merciless cruelty. The bullying of recent years seems to be characterized by an utter lack of mercy capable of driving the victim to suicide and by a cold refusal to see the victim as anything but the rightful target of harassment. The latter attitude, the sense that the victim contributes to his own predicament, appears to be shared not only by the victim's tormentors but by other children as well. Indeed, the presence of uncaring onlookers is a major factor in the instigation of bullying.

The Education Ministry changed its methods somewhat beginning with the survey for the 1994 school year, removing the "facts confirmed by the school" category, so no direct comparisons can be made with the various figures on bullying recorded in previous years. The large-scale increase in overall violence in schools beginning with the 1996 school year has once again become the main focus of attention. But it cannot be denied that, despite the decreasing numbers, bullying remains a problem in need of serious attention.

Efforts to Prevent Crime

Japanese Society and Schooling

One possible means of confronting this whole situation is by instituting educational reforms. In a policy address delivered to both houses of Japan's National Diet in February 1998, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto touched on this very theme. "The warlike competition to succeed in entrance examinations, bullying, refusal to attend school, and, above all, the problem of juvenile crime have all become extremely severe. Right now our children are truly suffering, crying out for help," he said.
It is rare to see these problems being given prominent consideration in a policy address; that they were addressed in this manner is in itself a demonstration of the powerful sense of urgency aroused by the situation facing Japan's young people. While the recent series of crimes involving junior high school students with knives forms the immediate background for the prime minister's remarks, his statement sets the issues of overly competitive exams and refusal to attend school right alongside that of juvenile crime. Clearly these are all interpreted as problems for education.

An interim report on "moral education" released by the Central Council for Education in late March 1998 provides a comprehensive overview of efforts being made to confront these issues within the domain of education. Among other things, the report recommends "once again reexamining the situation from the ground up, with an eye to the future," "once again reexamining the role of the family," "making use of the power of the community," and "reexamining schools in terms of their role as venues for moral education." These are all eminently sensible approaches that no one would quibble with, yet one is left with the undeniable impression that, due to its excessive coverage of every sort of approach in order to ensure that nothing was omitted, the report lacks a clear focus.
One thing, however, is quite clear: the increasingly widespread acknowledgment that there is absolutely no hope of resolving these problems through schooling alone. This attitude may be merely an extension of ideas first espoused by the Ad Hoc Committee on Education inaugurated in 1985, but for an advisory body to the minister of education to publicly recognize the limits of the mythical omnipotence of Japanese schools is a matter of no minor significance.

The interim report devotes primary attention to developing an understanding of how and why the nation's children have been thrust into such an urgent situation. The report observes that "the moral deterioration of adult society as a whole is increasingly apparent, with priorities being assigned to material values, such as a desire for money and possessions, social trends placing an overwhelming emphasis on convenience and utility, and the climate of opinion asserting the preeminence of personal interests over those of society at large." It stresses that adults have a responsibility to take the initiative and address the need to rectify the prevailing social climate.
This is absolutely the case. Surely there is some symbolic significance to the fact that the latest series of grievous incidents involving "normal" children occurred at the very same time as charges of shameless bribe-taking by supposedly elite Ministry of Finance officials and disclosures that banks and securities firms were colluding with corporate extortionists. A society held in thrall to the lust for money and status and devoted to the blind pursuit of pleasure has little to offer in the way of sympathy or normative values for children.

Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan devoted all its resources to modernizing itself in an attempt to join the ranks of the advanced nations of the industrialized world. The national education system initiated at this time was intended to cultivate the greatest possible number of promising personnel to serve the interests of the state. Following Japan's defeat in World War II, the education system, its formerly nationalistic orientation seriously undermined by the war's outcome, underwent a thorough transformation. The system's new goal for the postwar era was focused on economic progress--to catch up with and overtake the world leaders. Despite the change of orientation, however, one thing had not changed: fundamentally it was still a system built around one comprehensive plan and directed toward one specific goal. The conception of education as a tool for use in achieving a goal remained in place.
With economic prosperity as the nation's postwar goal, it was left to individual businesses to attend to the details involved in achieving this goal. The goal of education thus came to be the cultivation of the corporate warriors whose efforts would lift Japan to the level of prosperity enjoyed in Europe and North America. The belief that the path to happiness was defined by admission into a good university and subsequent employment with a good firm became the basis of conventional wisdom, and this in turn produced a prescription for the conduct of education in schools.

In the period from the latter half of the 1970s to the early 1980s, however, it became apparent that Japan had reached its goal of achieving prosperity--it had finally caught up with and overtaken the world leaders, at least in economic terms. In other words, the education system had lost its unifying objective. What is more, from that period on Japan's political and economic structures started going haywire. This was one of the factors giving rise to modern Japan's third great wave of juvenile crime, and the recognition of deteriorating conditions in the nation's schools amid rising violence and bullying dates back to this period as well. It could perhaps also be argued that a form of system-fatigue had begun to set in. Under any analysis, the era of steady economic growth was over.

As long as it is for the sake of the company, it matters not a bit if you spew pollution into the air and water, pay off extortionists, or neglect your family and community--the foundations of your own livelihood: This is the image of the typical Japanese company employee. What has sustained this devoted attitude is the expectation of com-pensation, in the form of money, status, and privilege, in return for achieving the appointed goals. The social climate criticized in the interim report--"priorities being assigned to material values, such as a desire for money and possessions, social trends placing an overwhelming emphasis on convenience and utility, and the climate of opinion asserting the preeminence of personal interests over those of society at large"--can simply be regarded as the necessary cost of staging a massive, headlong crusade to achieve the goal of economic growth.

This formula does not hold any currency anymore, though, a fact clearly demonstrated by the collapse of Japan's speculative "bubble" economy. It is no longer possible to expect steady economic expansion, and the expectation of compensation is dying out as well. There is no unitary goal shared by businesses and the state. A new era has dawned in which you need to have your own goals and ambitions as an individual in order to survive. Nevertheless, it is not so simple to trade in a way of life that has become deeply ingrained over many years for something better. The current situation for many is one of bewilderment, helpless impotence, and pain. The likelihood that a fourth major wave of juvenile crime is in its ascendancy may well be taken as a reflection of the times.

Limits of the Education System and the Course of Reforms

The problem is that the present education system, regardless of its intricate relation to the current social climate and value system, has simply been allowed to remain as it has always been. The situation in which, as Prime Minister Hashimoto put it, "education aimed at developing common sense, intelligence, and knowledge became merely a means of getting into a good school in order to secure a good job," has continued unchanged. While adult society has been painfully coming to terms with the fact that this is an era in which going to work for a good company does not ensure a happy existence, it has continued to thrust upon its children a system of education that places supreme value on going to work for a good company and pressures them to be "winners" in that system.

The original intent of studying was supposed to be self-refinement and enrichment as a human being. As more and more people began to advance to high school, college, and university, however, and education became popularized, the focus shifted to rapidly memorizing large volumes of "correct answers." Rather than a student's own honest assessment of his or her efforts, the important thing became one's grades and standing in the school or the class, as well as the rank of the school. Studying became merely a means of competition in the struggle to get into a good school and acquire a good job.
High schools and universities have come to be classified according to their relative ranking. Junior high schools and senoir high schools are merely institutions set out, like stepping stones, to permit movement to the next step (preferably to a school higher in rank). Schools are places where students feel intense pressure not to fall behind, and so there is scant expectation of finding comfort there. The percentage of school children complaining of stress and fatigue in Japan is strikingly high compared with the figures for many other countries. An education system of this sort is by no means suited to the enrichment of people's lives as individuals or to the building of a better society.

A great many comments by Japanese junior high school students regarding the previously noted incidents in Kobe and Tochigi indicated that, although the students doubted they could ever commit such acts, they identified with the feelings of those held responsible. The number of children who refuse to attend school (assessed on the basis of absences due to a dislike for school in excess of 30 days per school year) has been increasing year after year and now stands at nearly 100,000, a figure that could potentially be several times higher. The fact that incidences not only of refusal to attend school but also of bullying and school violence are overwhelmingly concentrated in junior high schools demonstrates that junior high students are facing especially grave conditions. The fact that the great majority of the serious juvenile crimes of the past year were committed by junior high students should force us to stop and think.

The task of making school life better, of transforming schools into places for learning and enjoyment, is an urgent one, not the least in the sense that it will also help in dealing with juvenile crime, and it is a task that will require a radical reform of the education system.

The Central Council for Education and the Education Ministry are fundamentally aware of the need for such an approach. The council has issued a report calling for a transformation of the system away from trying to cram knowledge into children's heads and toward education that fosters "capabilities for living" (the abilities to learn on one's own, think and make judgments for oneself, take action, and solve problems more effectively). One of the problems of the current system of emphasizing competitive entrance examinations is that, in addition to imposing severe burdens on students, it produces far too many successful students who have scarcely any inner resources and who lack "capabilities for living." The failings of this approach can be clearly seen in the presence of many "elite" graduates from top-ranked schools among the addled devotees of Aum Shinrikyo, the religious cult that launched sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, and among Finance Ministry bureaucrats who cannot cope with events that are not mapped out for them.

In this new age in which no unitary national goal can be asserted, a system that enables children to pursue individual ambitions and to lead their lives in a way that stimulates their abilities and enhances individuality can be far better expected to produce a strong, flexible society.

The idea of transforming Japan's education system into one whose central aim is to cultivate "capabilities for living" in individuals is right on target. The specific measures taken, though, whether in reforming entrance exams or reforming school courses, are as yet half-baked. There have been no glimpses yet of a route that can lead to radical reform.

To date, Japan has undergone two rounds of large-scale educational reforms, the first after the Meiji Restoration and the second under the postwar American Occupation. What is about to occur could be depicted as the third great stage of education reform, except that this stage will differ from the previous two in that the reforms will take place in peacetime and without pressure from abroad. The main point is the extent to which those concerned can bring a sense of crisis to bear on the task at hand, for the success or failure of reforms this time will not only affect education but may well determine much about Japan's status in the twenty-first century.

Discussions on Revising the Juvenile Law

One more step being discussed in response to juvenile crime is the revision of the Juvenile Law, and I would like to briefly turn to this issue next.

Once again the impetus for this discussion were last year's events in Kobe. The third-year junior high school student who had been arrested in the case was sent to a family court, which directed that psychiatric tests be conducted in the light of the exceptional aspects of the case as a juvenile matter. The resulting diagnosis was that, while the boy's actions had been affected by a grave behavior disorder, he was nevertheless capable of being held responsible for his actions, so in the end he was sent to a juvenile correctional facility for those in need of treatment.

With regard to the handling of juvenile crimes, Japan's Criminal Code holds that those 14 years and older are capable of being held responsible for their actions. Under the Juvenile Law, however, cases where criminal punishment may apply to those 16 years and older are sent to prosecutors, and a judgment of the appropriate punishment is made by a court. For 14-year-olds and 15-year-olds, punitive sentences are not handed down, and the disposition is invariably some form of probation. This is because the Juvenile Law emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment. Even in cases where very serious acts have been committed, the offender is consequently handed over to the care of a juvenile correctional institution, where the period of custody is set at "two years or less, in principle, with a maximum extension of one year" (according to a 1977 notice issued by the director-general of the Justice Ministry's Correction Bureau).

One of the points under discussion in the debate over revising the Juvenile Law is the assertion that even youths of 14 or 15 should be subject to criminal punishment when they commit truly evil acts. To allow such offenders to go free after a maximum three years is unacceptable from the point of view of their victims, it is argued, and is inadequate to deter them from committing further crimes. This line of argument, however, has little backing among those who are involved in dealing with juvenile problems. Japan's Juvenile Law very often does serve to effect the rehabilitation of young offenders, and the level of recidivism among underage violators is low. Grotesquely cruel crimes, such as that committed in Kobe, are exceedingly rare, and it would be premature to hasten to enact revisions on that basis, they argue. It should be apparent to anyone, they say, that juvenile crime is a more severe problem in the United States, which generally adheres to a policy of harsh punishment, than it is in Japan. The Justice Ministry has gone no further at this time than to issue a notice stating that, with regard to the period of custody in juvenile correctional facilities, "Three years or less is the term ordinarily required for rehabilitation. It is possible that the term of custody may exceed this period if required for rehabilitation."

One more point taken up in the discussion over revising the Juvenile Law is the criticism that, because the law focuses on the rehabilitation of the youth in question, society is left without a proper understanding of the facts of the case. Specifically, this criticism addresses the conduct of court judgments involving juveniles. The Juvenile Law stipulates that such actions be kept confidential, treating them as exceptions to the principle that court proceedings be conducted openly. What this indicates is that between the value of exposing the facts of an incident and that of ensuring the rehabilitation of the youth involved, the latter has been afforded the higher priority.

Accordingly, there are a number of important differences between actions by an ordinary criminal court and court judgments involving juveniles. Aside from the matter of confidentiality, a prosecutor cannot be present at a court judgment involving a juvenile. Furthermore, the judge in a juvenile proceeding does not determine the terms of the youth's rehabilitation or the period of custody--those details are worked out by correctional facilities as the rehabilitation process unfolds. In an ordinary criminal trial, the prosecution and the defense are both entitled to be heard, and repeated appeals are possible, but this does not hold true for judgments involving juveniles, in which only the defense can file an appeal.
There are reasons for having such a system. With the public confronted by a case such as the one in Kobe, however, in which the relevant information was almost entirely unavailable, the focus shifted to the negative aspects of the system. People want to know how a child could commit such grisly acts, what sort of upbringing he had had, and how he behaved at home, at school, and in his community. The paucity of available facts and information on the case truly is a problem.

Beginning in November 1996, periodic conferences that include representatives from the Supreme Court, the Justice Ministry, and the Japan Federation of Bar Associations have been held for the purpose of exchanging views on the nation's juvenile court system. While the lawyers' group has taken a cautious stand on the issue of revising the Juvenile Law, no specific progress has been made as yet. Nevertheless, in light of the continuing succession of serious juvenile crimes that has occurred in the aftermath of the Kobe murder, a new movement toward revision has emerged in 1998.

The Supreme Court and the Justice Ministry have solidified their positions on revising the Juvenile Law, maintaining that they would agree to the participation of prosecutors in juvenile proceedings and are in favor of enabling the prosecutors to appeal decisions on the disposition of such matters. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party's subcommittee on the Juvenile Law has indicated its intention to present legislation to the National Diet that would make revisions in the law incorporating the recommendations of the Supreme Court and the Justice Ministry. The debate within the subcommittee reportedly has been influenced by an insistence on revisions that also deal with the issue of age, lowering the maximum age of those subject to the provisions of the Juvenile Law from 20 to 18 and extending the applicability of criminal penalties to those 14 and older, rather than 16 and older, as the law presently stipulates. The current minister of justice, Kokichi Shimoinaba, has actively and repeatedly called for summarily lowering the age limits, and while there is as yet no dominating trend in this direction, the future remains uncertain. The issue merits continuing broad-based and searching debate, not only among those in the legal profession but also among those in the fields of education and public welfare.

Jun'ichi Seto: Presently editorial writer (covering educational issues) and concurrently senior editor of the Mainichi Shimbun. Graduated from Tohoku University, majoring in law. Joined the Mainichi Shimbun in 1971 and worked at the newspaper's Hanshin office and the city news department in Osaka. Moved to Tokyo to work as the Ministry of Education correspondent for the city desk. Held the post of assistant city editor and other posts. Became an editorial writer in 1995.

Copyright Foreign Press Center Japan @ http://www.nttls.co.jp/fpc
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