Solo savior on the streets


For the past 14 years, former high-school teacher Osamu Mizutani has had no rest as he has devoted himself to helping troubled youths put their lives back in order.

Widely known as yomawari sensei (the night guard-teacher) for his nightly patrols to encourage kids hanging around the streets to return to regular life, 49-year-old Mizutani regularly has to deal with motorcycle gangs and gangsters as he strives to turn youngsters away from lives of crime.

Once he was even forced by an underworld boss to crush the tip of his own finger in order to help a Taiwanese youth sever ties with a crime syndicate.

Now, with more teens becoming hikikomori recluses, suffering from abuse at home or giving up on their future in a society they perceive of as fraught with socio-economic change, Mizutani has been busier than ever. Two years ago his book “Yomawari Sensei” touched a raw nerve when it was published. About 350,000 copies have been sold to date in Japan, with another 51,000 sold in translation in South Korea since 2004 and publication eyed soon in Taiwan.

“Teenagers, mainly those in junior-high and high schools, read my book, and the reason is simply because of my message that tells them ‘it’s all right’,” Mizutani told The Japan Times. “That is because I tell them that whatever wrong they did in the past, or they are doing at present — the future will come, so let’s build tomorrow.

“How many parents or teachers tell their children ‘it’s all right’? Instead they tell them they are failures, tell them off and just keep prodding them. That’s why so many kids come to me for rescue.”

Mizutani quit his job as a social science teacher in September 2004 after falling out with the local education authorities over his principles of education, and he sensed that he would be relegated to a non-teaching post. Since then he has been delivering lectures nationwide, patroling the streets at night and exchanging phone calls and e-mails with thousands of young people from all over the country.

“Last night, I went to bed at 4 a.m. after exchanging e-mails with children as usual, and then I had a good night’s sleep of about four hours — which was an hour longer than usual.”

Last year, Mizutani gave a total of 423 lectures — a punishing schedule that allowed him to return to his Yokohama home about only three days a month. Over the last 22 months he has received more than 183,000 e-mails from about 100,000 children or parents seeking his advice. Of those, he estimates that around 10 percent were split evenly between youths taking drugs (and the parents of such children) and parents whose children had been sent to reformatories, while 90 percent were from young people with suicidal tendencies who had taken overdoses or cut their wrists.

“Those children say things like ‘Mr. Mizutani, help me. I cannot help but cut my wrist,’ and ‘Why shouldn’t I be dead? I want to die!’ In fact, I was dealing with such cries for help until just before I left home for this interview today.”

Clearly, demands for his assistance are unending — during the two-hour-long interview Mizutani was frequently answering calls. One was from an 18-year-old girl on medication for a dependence on stimulants. She started taking them after her foster parents forced her into prostitution when she graduated from junior high school in Fukuoka. The foster parents were arrested last year.

Mizutani said he first dealt with juvenile delinquency and drugs when he began teaching at a night school in Yokohama in 1992. Many of the students there were sniffing glue and roaming the streets after school. Later, about four years ago, he began to tackle the problem of teen suicide after receiving an e-mail from a first-year high-school student. According to Mizutani, she had been cutting her wrists for three years and “was so sick of life that she wanted to die.”

Now he figures that “more than a million” youngsters in Japan are cutting their wrists, taking overdoses and harming themselves in other attempted suicides or “cries for help” every year — adding that schools generally deny knowing of any such cases.

Mizutani explains that many children hurt themselves as a cry for help. They feel their parents and teachers don’t recognize their independent existence, instead ordering them around, expecting high levels of achievement and pressuring them to behave in certain ways.

As another symptom of social malaise and family dysfunction, the number of hikikomori among teenagers and youths in their 20s is put by some experts at more than a million, he notes. He warns that as more and more children live in a “virtual reality” mediated by cell phones and the Internet, they lack the ability to build a rapport with people around them.

“Some people accuse me of ‘self-advertisement’ because of what I do, but my aim is to shed light on these social issues so that they can be properly addressed.”

But as much as he tries, Mizutani hasn’t got a magic wand.

On Jan. 3, one of the youths he had been counseling died from a drug overdose. To his knowledge, 31 others he has helped have also died.

On the positive side, Mizutani believes that about 70 percent of the young people who turn to him for help manage to pull themselves together after several e-mail exchanges.

“I always tell troubled kids to do something for others. They are suspicious of people, but they can be cured by kind words from others. To receive those words, they must do something themselves.”

He makes it clear to them that he sympathizes with their predicaments — without asking them about every detail — and tells them that he can help them to think about what to do tomorrow.

“It’s the responsibility of adults to talk about tomorrow, but few of them do that nowadays — many children are losing sight of their tomorrow.”

Although the economy is said to be picking up — especially the big-business sector — the number of households on welfare is also rising. In 2000, Japan is now ranked fifth among the members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in terms of the number of individuals with equivalized disposable income less than 50 percent of the median income of the entire population. And both domestic violence and the number of workers entitled to compensation for work-related mental disorders are also on the increase.

“How many adults appear to be living a happy life? Seeing worn-out and distressed adults all around, children are prone to live only for the pleasure of the moment because they feel that becoming an adult will suck.”

In society in general, Mizutani feels that people are becoming less at ease with themselves, especially with the trend toward merit-based pay that is polarizing individuals into successes and failures.

With life for many getting tougher, Mizutani believes that more fathers, who fear being laid off, are venting their frustrations on their wives and children, turning to drink, or both. Similarly, mothers busy working part-time to make ends meet are also venting their stress on their children or turning their backs on their families and resorting to online dating.

“Children have nowhere to go but home or school, and they are hardly ever encouraged with praise by teachers. How many kids could be saved if such beautiful words as ‘thank you’ were exchanged at home and school?”

In his lectures Mizutani urges parents and teachers to create a kind-hearted and considerate society in which children can grow up with smiles on their faces.

And that could not happen quickly enough for Mizutani, who, for the last several years, has been suffering from lymphoma in the thymus gland.

“My body will be done for soon because the cancer has spread quite badly, and I may or may not live out the year. I will have a good rest if I die,” he said.

But if Mizutani were not out there, then to whom could those troubled young people turn? “All I can do is sow as many seeds as possible for adults and children to nurture and realize that it’s great to be alive and caring for each other,” Mizutani said.

Until then, nothing, not even his own death, scares him more than the thought of those he helps calling him a liar and never trusting him again.