Japanese children are refusing to go to school in record numbers

The Japanese education system is facing an on-going problem—an increasing number of Japanese children who refuse to go to school.

This phenomenon, called “futoko,” is defined as a child doesn’t go to school for more than 30 days, for reasons other than finance or health. Futoko (or non-attendance) is a growing trend within the Japanese education system, hitting a record high of 164,528 elementary and junior-high children absent for 30 days or more during 2018, an increase from 144,031 in 2017. The most common reasons children refused to attend school included bullying, personal issues with friends or teachers, and family circumstances.

When children refuse to go to school, Japanese parents have three options: send their child to school counseling, home school, or send their child to a free school.

Free schools started in Japan in the 1980s, as an alternative to a growing number of truant school-age children. The free schools are an alternative to compulsory education, operating on principles of individuality and freedom. Students are not required to wear a uniform and can choose their own activities based on a plan agreed upon by the school, parents, and pupils. They focus on a child’s individual interests and skills, and are held in small, informal common spaces that encourage student interaction. Although the schools won’t give children a recognized qualification, the number of students attending free schools has increased dramatically from 7,424 in 1992 to 20,346 in 2017.

“The purpose of this school is to develop people’s social skills,” says Takashi Yoshikawa, the head of Tamagawa Free School in Tokyo, which now serves 10 students regularly.

Futoko was once seen as a mental illness, but the rise of absentee Japanese children is forcing the Japanese ministry of education to take a closer look at its non-welcoming system.  Strict school rules, known as “black school rules,” were enacted in the 1970s and 1980s to target student violence and bullying. These rules severely limited a child’s individuality, controlling every aspect of a pupil’s appearance (clothing, hair color) and behavior. When combined with overly prescriptive curricula and oversized classrooms, many students just fall through the cracks.

Recently, national criticism of the Japanese school environment and its “black school rules” is becoming common. The Tokyo Shimbun newspaper called the black school rules a “violation of human rights and an obstacle to student diversity,” reported the BBC News.

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