There’s a boy in our building who doesn’t go to school. Ever. Nine-year-old Kenji missed 40 days of school last year, then refused to go back at all after the spring break. He says that he “can’t breathe” at school and that his stomach hurts whenever he’s in the building.
Staying home isn’t easy for Kenji either. His older brother goes to school. His younger sister goes to school. Every other child in the neighborhood goes to school. “I’m no good,” Kenji said to his mother the other day. “Everyone goes to school but me.”
Kenji may feel alone, but there are a lot of children like him. A growing number of Japanese children are unable or unwilling to attend school. The problem of toko kyohi (school refusal), or futoko (non-attendance), is confounding parents and educators, and may force small changes in the Japanese education system.
What makes a child refuse to go to school? It’s almost always due to a problem at school rather than at home. Sometimes the child has been bullied. Sometimes the child has had trouble with friends or finds school too competitive. Sometimes there doesn’t appear to be a good reason. One girl’s school refusal started because she didn’t like the school lunch.
Whatever the reasons, the number of children who refuse to go to school is growing. By official estimates, there are at least 26,000 elementary school children and 108,000 middle school students who refuse to go to school — about 10 times as many as in 1978. Actual numbers are probably higher because school officials sometimes classify absences as medical to protect the child (or the school) from the stigma of school refusal.
High school is not part of compulsory education, so the Education Ministry doesn’t keep figures for older students, but many students drop out of high school for the same reasons younger children refuse to attend.
“Some things have improved for school refusers in Japan in recent years,” according to Keiko Okuchi, head of a parents’ support organization and herself the mother of a former school refuser who is now an adult. “The Education Ministry has now recognized that school refusal is a societal problem rather than an individual problem. As a result, there is less pressure to force children to attend school when they aren’t willing or able. And there are now more options, including ‘free schools,’ for children who can’t or won’t attend regular school.
“But what hasn’t changed,” she said, “is the attitude that it is normal for children to want to go to school and abnormal for them not to want to go to school. Children are still under tremendous pressure to be like everyone else and go to a regular school.”
That certainly is the case for Kenji, the boy in our building. He has received free counseling from our ward and is enrolled in the tekiyokyoshitsu (flexible classroom) set up by our board of education especially for school refusers. But the goal of both programs is to help Kenji return to regular school.
Initially, Kenji’s parents wanted nothing more than to have him go back to school. But after joining a futoko support group, they gradually came around to the idea that regular school may not suit Kenji. He is highly sensitive to noise, crumbles under pressure and doesn’t like to conform. They are looking into other options, but there aren’t many.
Like many school refusers, Kenji may end up at a free school, a private organization that offers (for a price, despite the name) a less structured learning environment. Usually, the students themselves decide what to study and how often they will attend.
But Kenji’s parents have a number of concerns about alternative education. Most free schools are not accredited or recognized by the Education Ministry, so Kenji’s parents are afraid that he won’t be able to go to high school or university. They also worry that sending Kenji to a free school will not fulfill their legal obligation to educate him.
Japanese law is a bit fuzzy on this point. Parents must provide their child with an education, but the law doesn’t specify that the education must take place at school. The assumption has long been that a child must be enrolled in an accredited school for the nine years of compulsory education.
Many parents of school refusers get around this problem by making an arrangement with their local public school. If the principal allows it, the child can officially register at the school while actually attending a free school. The child gets a recognized diploma this way, too.
Another problem is tuition. Kenji’s parents can’t really afford to pay for a free school. There are now several hundred free schools in Japan, but none of them receive government funding. Okuchi, who founded Tokyo Shure, one of Japan’s oldest free schools, in 1985, believes that this is wrong. “Families whose children attend free schools should receive some government support to offset the cost of their education,” she told me. Is that going to happen any time soon? Not likely, Okuchi concedes.
This is because Japan’s modern education system was built on the democratic principle that every child should have the same educational opportunities. The policy has been that all schools should be the same so that every child gets the same education. A “one size fits all” mentality.
But this way of thinking is beginning to change. The Education Ministry is now encouraging schools, in a limited way, to develop their own characteristics. The board of education in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, allows parents to send their children to any school within the ward, instead of insisting that everyone attend the school closest to their home.
Why not go one step further and set up publicly funded alternative schools? Why not convert one school in a district into an alternative program to serve children who can’t attend regular school as well as those seeking something different?
As the growing number of school refusers makes clear, not all children are best served by Japan’s highly standardized public schools. One size doesn’t fit all.