Sunday, September 19, 2010

School Refusal

There is a phenomenon in Japan called toko kyohi (school refusal) or futoko (non-attendance). Kids, for various reasons, stop going to school. By law they have to finish junior high school (through the equivalent of 9th grade), but their parents just can't get them to attend. This is a big problem. At my small town school, we have about 300 students plus 15-20 who don't come to school. Some are 16 or so and want to work but probably can't find a job since they don't have their junior high diploma. One girl is from the Phillipines, her Japanese isn't that great and she wants to go back to the Phillipines. Others are just shut-ins who stay on the computer all day. One of our teachers is assigned to go to their houses and work with them one on one.

She asked me what happens in the US with kids who don't go to school. I said that after they were truant a lot, their parents got in trouble and may even lose custody if they can't get their kid enrolled in and regularly attending a school. Also, I told her about alternative schools which are less strict. I turns out that our town is setting up an open school at the town library where the kids can drop in and hopefullly it'll count towards school attendance. Here's the question though, why don't they want to come to school?

I have a few ideas. First of all, Junior High School in Japan is intense. Take all of your preconceptions of American JHS and stuff them. They have been preparing their whole lives to perform for these 3 years. This is it. They have sports or band practice before and after school. They practice during school breaks. Many attend juku (cram school) for English. We had the annual school festival last week and sports superstars were playing koto. Band members were doing English speeches. Dancers were doing Taiko drumming. If a student says they practice shodo (Japanese calligraphy) they will always say they've been doing it since they were 4 years old. Their lives are incredibly scripted, the education based on rote memorization and regurgitation and there is little to no free time. When asked what they did over summer vacation, most of my students went with their families to the sea - for 1 or 2 days of a 4 week break. All said they studied. When pressed, some played video games or watched tv.

Here's the thing, most students are happy as clams. They are doing what they're supposed to be doing. They are excelling at it. They are part of the group (the most important thing in Japan). They are standing out only for winning competitions. Otherwise, they are blissfully blending.

The futako kids must feel like I do at school. They don't feel like part of the group or like they ever will be. Except they don't get to fly home to where they DO fit in after a couple of years here. They are stuck. And if they can't bring themselves to face the group at 13 years old, they're in big trouble here.

Bullying is a problem in Japan because they like social dynamics to form organically and don't step in when it occurs. The bullied child is blamed instead of the group. That is changing now. Some of John's students made fun of a special needs girl and had to apologize to her, her parents, write letters and visit the family at home on the weekend, not to mention get suspended from school. But, in general, the Japanese mentality is such that the parents ask, what did you do to stand out and get bullied? (like the old Japanese proverb "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down").

Maybe the futako kids are just missing that unique Japanese gene that makes them ever concerned with the group to the detriment of themselves. (Indeed, there is no word for "self-esteem" in Japan). Maybe they're self conscious and inward looking naturally and can't adjust to the group dynamic. Perhaps they're exhausted by trying to keep up appearances. In Japan you have to cultivate your "tatemae" (false face) and rarely express your true feelings (usually only after many alcoholic drinks and bouts of karaoke and that outlet isn't available to teenagers). These kids just aren't willing to play the game, probably. It's easier to pass the hours on the computer or reading manga.

There is an awareness of this problem now but society is so entrenched in its ways that it's difficult to bring these kids back into the fold. Even if you could kick the strong prejudice against mental illness and get the child some psychological help, actually going back to school is an enormous leap. Maybe the open school at the library is a good start for the kids to at least get out of their homes and talk to some one other than their parents.

Whenever I see the foreign kids at school or the ones that don't always come, I feel a kinship with them. None of us are truly in the group. I wish we could form our own little support group or something. At least I'm getting paid to be there.

Whoops, this got long. I guess I had a lot to say on the subject! Because posts without pictures are boring, here's a shot of the bread I baked last week. (Japanese bread is either wonderbread type or too soft/sweet for our liking.)

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