Sitting in a dimly lit room at a training school for juvenile delinquents in Tokyo, an 18-year-old Brazilian-Japanese boy reflects on his misdeeds.
Though he ended up at the reformatory about a year ago for groping a woman, the deeper story of his detention can be traced to problems in childhood adjusting to Japanese society.
Brought to Japan at the age of 5 by his divorced mother, who was seeking work, his inability to speak the language well, he recalls, made him the target of bullying at school. Not surprisingly, he gravitated toward fellow Brazilians in situations similar to his own.
“My Japanese classmates would say something to me knowing that whatever they said, I wouldn’t understand anyway. And they would just laugh,” the boy recalled. “It was much easier for me to be with Brazilian boys.”
He soon began to cut school and go on shoplifting sprees with the other boys, taking comfort in their company. Eventually, he dropped out in the middle of junior high school. (The Japan Times is not naming the boy because he is a minor.)
The boy’s tale of race-based bullying, identity crisis and early withdrawal from the education system resembles the situations of many foreigners in youth detention centers across the nation, pundits say.
Regardless of nationality, juvenile offenders as a whole have had more than their share of difficulties growing up. But correctional officers say some are unique to foreigners, such as poor Japanese skills, little education and exposure to bad influences.
Yet foreigners make up only a small segment of juvenile offenders. Of the 3,498 minors sent to juvenile halls in 2012, only 50 were non-Japanese, Justice Ministry data show.
In November, the ministry released a rare comprehensive survey of foreign juvenile offenders, drawing on the experiences of 103 teens between June and November 2010.
By and large they were Latin American and Asian, including Brazilians, Peruvians and Filipinos, and 63 percent had committed theft or armed robbery.
Keio University criminology professor Tatsuya Ota said one of the keys to integrating foreign offenders into Japanese society is to enhance their social skills.
A major hurdle is their lack of formal education, he said. In fact, of the 103 foreign delinquents covered by the ministry survey, at least 15 hadn’t completed junior high school, which was not the case with any of the Japanese, according to Ota.
Consequently, many are virtually incapable of following simple daily routines, such as waking up at a certain time, he said. Without practice in punctuality they may find it hard to hold a job, assuming they’re fortunate enough to land one after their release, the professor said.
Hitoshi Kosugi, an instructor at Kurihama juvenile training school in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, said it’s also important to close the gap between how the foreign kids and Japanese think.
Kosugi, who has dealt with both Japanese and foreign juveniles for years, has noticed rationalizations peculiar to Brazilian boys. According to him, they tend to shift the blame for their thievery onto the victims, who, the boys say, let their guard down too easily.
“Also, they often say God will forgive them anyway if they pray hard enough and ask for his forgiveness,” Kosugi said, noting few Japanese resorted to such logic.
The rehabilitation programs try to teach minors the social skills that might help them once they leave the correctional facility.
For example, at the Kurihama school, the first to accommodate foreign boys, the kids take lessons in woodcraft in addition to Japanese-language classes. The woodcraft courses are not an official apprenticeship but are intended to teach the kids perseverance and how to heed advice and follow instructions, said Naofumi Baba, another instructor at Kurihama.
As their time draws to a close, the boys participate in role-playing sessions that simulate real-life situations, such as what to do if they find a lost item.
But it’s not the behavior of foreign delinquents alone that presents difficulties for their rehabilitation.
For example, many instructors interviewed by The Japan Times agreed that the parents of foreign delinquents tend to downplay the misdemeanors of their children.
“They would often say, ‘All I want is for you to come back home as soon as possible,’ apparently oblivious to paying much attention to their correction,” said instructor Ryosuke Kamataki at the Tama juvenile training school in Tokyo.
Once they leave the training schools, many also have a hard time steering clear of the people that led them into trouble in the first place, Baba of Kurihama said.
More than 60 percent of the foreigners in the ministry survey belonged to an anti-social group, such as a local biker gang. For Japanese kids, breaking off old friendships with other delinquents is relatively easy, as many have the option of moving in with relatives somewhere else. Few foreign kids have the same opportunity.
Instructors at juvenile centers stress again and again that learning Japanese ways is key to their integration into society. But that’s not to say foreign kids who have gone astray should renounce their ethnic pride and identity, according to Cambodian Chanthea Ros.
Moving to Japan at age 3 with his parents, Ros, now 30, remembers being bullied as a kid for his “gaijin” appearance. Influenced by a gang of delinquent boys years older than him, he would shoplift, pick fights and punch people at random.
As he grew older, Ros befriended the local yakuza and committed crimes on their orders. At one point in his early 20s, however, he had an epiphany: “It suddenly hit me I was acting so utterly docile to them that I had almost forgotten my pride as a Cambodian,” he said. “I thought, if I kept taking their orders, they would forever use me.”
Ros, now an avid break dancer, said he cut his ties to the mob five years ago.
“No matter which country you’re in, or what language you speak, be sure to not forget about your home country and feel proud of it,” he said.